The New City Charter Takes The Spotlight

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Remember when former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was getting into all that trouble? There was much talk about the city charter then, how the law department was powerless to control the mayor, how the charter had to be updated. The talk ramped up into action and an elected charter revision commission worked for two years to revise the city’s law book.

Now, two years later, the new and supposedly improved charter is taking affect, big time.

But a lot has changed since Kilpatrick’s mess and the revised charter is giving the law department the power to act independently of a new kind of Mayor: one caught in a financial crisis and trying to keep the city afloat with state funds—and state mandated financial experts to the tune of controversy. There are those who believe the city could do without state mandated experts taking over city finances.

The new charter has city’s law department separate from the executive branch so that neither the Mayor nor the City Council can give city law officials orders. What’s more, the law department has the power to remove elected officials from office if they violate the charter. The mayor and the council can also remove law officials.

The stakes were raised last week for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and City Council members. Threats from state treasury officials are putting city leaders in with a financial time bomb: Drop the lawsuit that’s holding up the consent agreement or loose $80 million in revenue sharing, a state treasury official threatened. The threat came in a letter to Jack Martin, the state appointed financial guru to head the conditions of the stalled consent agreement.

That spells stalemate for Bing, the Council and Law Department.

Bing and the Council are set to meet behind closed doors today to figure out what their options are.

What’s interesting to me is why the state is so eager to force the city to drop the lawsuit. The state and the mayor contend that the city doesn’t have enough time to wait for a legal battle to play out.

But it seems like that state is worried the lawsuit really might just void the legality of the consent agreement. Why else would state officials be so forceful in making the city drop the lawsuit—a lawsuit that they claim hold no water?

A question for city leaders is: is the law bendable under the weight of an impeding financial crisis?

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