• Gary Woronchak

City Charter revision: Few are yet aware of important vote on this year's ballot

Many are aware that Dearborn will elect a new mayor this year, since Mayor O’Reilly is not running for re-election. (If you’re already getting tired of unsolicited texts and phone calls, just wait.)

The entire City Council is up for election, and with at least one council member running for mayor, and the usual pre-campaign chatter about which members may not run again, it’s likely we will have new faces on the council after this year, one for sure. And, the City Clerk is on the ballot this year, too.

However, there are other very important issues on the city ballots this year, and those haven’t gotten much notice.

Some city property tax is expiring, and it’s expected that the City Council will put the tax on the ballot for voters to decide on renewal. It’s not a small amount, 3.5 mills for operations and 1 mill for libraries, first approved in 2011 after the housing market crash crushed city tax revenues.

But the biggest deal coming up that almost no one has heard of is the question of whether to revise the Dearborn City Charter.

And, if voters decide in August that our charter will be revised, we would then elect a nine-member Charter Revision Commission in November to spend the next couple years doing the work. This would produce another slew of candidates for a temporary elected position that many have never heard of.

So, there’s lots going on this year. Since city elections are on odd-numbered years, there are no presidential or governor races to draw voter interest. These will be our elections, just for Dearborn. That requires more attention from voters, and often results in lower voter participation. We need to work on that.

Today, let’s focus on the possible rewriting of the Dearborn City Charter, and the subsequently possible election of a Dearborn Charter Commission. (SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to ask those of you who may have never run for office before to consider the possibility. We’ll get to that.)

WHAT IS THE CITY CHARTER? Let’s start with the basics.

A charter is a document developed and, importantly, voted on by the residents of a home rule city. In simplest terms, it sets the framework for the city’s government. It determines how the government it is set up, what is permissible and not, and so on.

It is a cross between the city’s own Constitution and a simple rulebook. It sets the rules of operation, subject to limits set by state government in the Home Rule Cities Act.

The charter is a long and, unless you’re an extreme policy wonk, boring document. It has 55 pages, and the first six alone are just the table of contents. But, for the sake of this discussion, if you’ve stayed with it this far, you might want to have a look at the current Dearborn City Charter. Click here to view our charter.

You’ll see that it really is an important document. It sets the powers for the mayor and the council. It outlines our taxation. It provides for how our elections work, that we have a strong mayor form of government, how elected officials are replaced if a vacancy occurs, and much, much, much more.

WHY CHARTERS NEED UPDATING, AND HOW IT'S DONE Times change, and charters, like a state’s constitution, have mechanisms built in for changing with the times. The charter itself states that individual sections of the charter can be amended, removed, or added by a vote of Dearborn residents. Residents themselves can put a charter amendment question on the ballot, by petition. The City Council can also put amendments on the ballot, but it’s important to know that neither the Council nor the Mayor have the power to change the Dearborn City Charter. That is reserved for the residents.

I should differentiate here between charter amendments and revisions. An amendment changes just one section of the document. A revision rewrites the whole thing, not necessarily changing the basic structure, but updating bits and pieces throughout.

After enough time passes, it’s possible that the charter could need more than piecemeal changes patching holes and updating sections through the amendment process.

The Dearborn City Charter anticipates this possibility, and won’t wait for city officials to decide that might be necessary. The charter that took effect January 1, 2008 specifies in Section 19.5 that, on the city primary election ballot in 2021, the question shall be put to voters whether a general revision of the entire document should occur. So there is no decision to be made whether or not to put this before voters. The City Council must put it on the August 3 ballot.

If voters say no to that question, the current charter remains in place, still able to be amended a little at a time as the voters deem necessary. The charter states that the question of a full review/revision would then next appear on the ballot in 2033, unless the City Council with at least five votes or a citizen petition calls for the question to be put on the ballot sooner.

If voters say yes, that begins a detailed process that will take probably at least two years.

First, a nine-member Charter Commission would be elected in November. That means candidates who have an interest in their city government and their community would need to step forward to run for the commission.

These would, presumably, be civic-minded individuals willing to devote time over a couple years in several open, public meetings to study, discuss, hear from the public and decide on what portions of the charter should be changed. The work can be busy, and thankless, and probably will come with a $50 per meeting stipend (that was the case in 2005).

The Charter Commission would hold hearings and decide what, if anything, needs to be changed. After a long process that would take many meetings, the Charter Commission would vote to put a revised charter before voters, maybe in 2023. Voters then would give their collective thumbs up or down to the proposed revised charter.

If voters say yes the proposal revised charter, it is adopted and goes into effect. If, however, voters reject the proposed new document, the Charter Commission can either disband without further action and let the current charter stand, or, more likely, it would make some changes and put it before voters again.

The Charter Commission’s revised charter can be put before city voters no more than three times. If it fails to get approval in three tries, we stick with the current charter. If a revised charter isn’t approved within three years of the commission being formed, we also continue with the 2008 charter.


A full revision of the Dearborn City Charter occurs rarely. The last time voters said yes to wanting a revised charter was in 2005. The time before that, I believe, was 1977. Following the process I described, voters said yes in the 2005 city primary election to starting the process. That November, a nine-member commission was elected (there were 40 candidates!), which wound up being chaired by current Councilman David Bazzy, who did a very good job on the Charter Commission. The Charter Commission worked for nearly two years on the revisions, before putting the proposed new Dearborn City Charter on a ballot in November 2007. Voters said yes to the new charter, and it took effect January 1, 2008. WANTED: GOOD CANDIDATES FOR AN OFFICE NOT YET CREATED So, here’s the plug for candidates. If voters do decide they want our charter revised, we will need a good selection of residents who are able and willing to do good work on our behalf. We won’t even know until August 3 if a Charter Commission will be created, but if one becomes necessary, there won’t be much time for people to decide whether to get involved.

The time is now, then, for residents to consider whether they want to be part of that process, IF it becomes reality.

I bring this up because I read comments on social media every day made by people who have a lot to offer a process like this – and they might not even realize themselves that they could add great value to such a project. You can have an impact on our city government for years to come.

If this is the sort of thing that might interest you, think about it. And, keep your radar up on this, because it still needs to be determined for sure when candidates for Charter Commission would have to file to run. The charter says they need to file by three weeks after the primary election, but I’m not sure that will stick, with updated ballot printing deadlines that have changed since the current charter was adopted.

And, even if you have no interest in serving on such a body if it’s created, you, as a voter, should be aware of all of this so you can make a good decision in August on whether or not the Dearborn City Charter should be revised.

If you have any questions, or are interested in discussing this subject, feel free to contact me.


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