'A lawyer’s dream:' Detroit Charter revision drama could end in court

May 12, 2021, 5:43 AM

From left: charter commissioners Joanna Underwood and Barbara Wynder, activist Brenda Hill, and commission vice chair Nicole Small. (Photo: Violet Ikonomova)

An effort to revamp Detroit's guiding document to provide more benefits to low-income residents may go before a judge before it goes before voters in August.

The Michigan Attorney General's Office and Detroit's top lawyer offer conflicting interpretations of the governor's recent rejection of the proposal by the Detroit Charter Revision Commission, Crain's reports. The former says the elected body can push the issue to ballot despite the objections, or make amendments to ensure it comports with state law. The head of the Detroit City Council Legislative Policy Division and the commission's lawyer agree.

But the latter, whose client — the Duggan administration — insists Detroit can't afford the plan to expand access to basics like water and transit, claims the governor's rejection is a road block.

Either way — a legal battle brews. If charter commissioners proceed without addressing legal concerns cited by Whitmer and the proposal is approved by voters, portions may be struck down by a court later on. Or, as Crain's reports, the Duggan administration could sue to block it from the ballot altogether, risking election-year accusations that it's undercutting the democratic process.

If the city did sue ahead of the vote, it could also delay the process to the point that the charter revisions are no longer eligible for the ballot, Wayne State University Law School professor John Mogk said. The commission dissolves Aug. 6.

So what would happen if it went to the ballot and the charter revisions got voted into law?

"I think the state would probably have to sue the city," Muchmore said.

A post-vote lawsuit leads to questions about what the Duggan administration would do, given the fact that its lawyer doesn't agree it's lawful to go on the ballot in the first place — and who would pay for legal representation for the charter commission.

There are also other players: If the charter that passes violates terms of the city's bankruptcy court decision, the U.S. Attorney's office could step in, according to (Dennis Muchmore, government relations and regulatory adviser for Detroit-based law firm Honigman LLP). If the proposed charter really would devastate the city's finances — a Duggan claim that commissioners vehemently dispute — then the Financial Review Commission appointed to oversee Detroit's finances after the bankruptcy could decide to step back in.

Muchmore calls it "a lawyer's dream."

The commission, for its part, is hoping to avoid a courtroom. At least two of its members say they plan to amend the document to ensure it's legal. 

Read more:  Crain's Detroit Business

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