August 15, 2015
"If you don't like it, change the charter." Virg Bernero in 8/18/2015 conversation with Dave Ackerly of WILS 1320.
In my July 20 story, I said the only way to prevent the re-election of Lansing mayor Virg Bernero in 2017 is to eliminate the office of mayor. We could do that by amending the City Charter, switching to a city manager appointed by the city council. We could use Grand Rapids as a model, where the seven city commissioners elect a city manager who is in charge of the administration of municipal affairs under their direction and supervision. Grand Rapids also has a mayor; the mayor is the one city commissioner who is elected at large. The others consist of two from each of the city's three wards. The mayor is recognized as the executive head of the city for all ceremonial purposes and presides at the meetings of the city commission. (source: Grand Rapids City Charter)
Figuring out all the changes to the Lansing City Charter needed to switch to a city manager is the first step. Then we'd have to get it enacted. It can be enacted either as an amendment or a general revision of the charter. I'd say that although switching to a city manager involves extensive changes - replacing every occurrence of "mayor" with "city manager" - the change is an amendment, not a general revision. I covers only one subject. If it does indeed qualify as an amendment, the process is governed by state law, Section 21 of The Home Rule City Act, Act 279 of 1909. That law says that the amendment may be proposed by a 3/5 vote of the city council or by initiatory petition. Lansing's city council has 8 members. 3/5 of 8 is 4.8, so 5 votes would be needed.
If the city council won't put the amendment on the ballot, state law allows it to be done by initiative petition, but that might not be feasible. The City Charter says petitions must "set forth in full the measure to be initiated" which probably means that every page on which "mayor" is changed to "city manager" must be included in the petition, and that is 20 out of 25 pages. They'd have to be attached to each petition sheet. A petition sheet has lines for about 15 signatures. We'd need signatures of 5% of Lansing's registered voters. From the City Charter:
An 8/3/2015 story in the Lansing State Journal says there are 80,000 registered voters in Lansing. 5% of 80,000 is 4,000. If we get an average of 10 signatures per sheet, we'd need at least 400 petition sheets, along with their 20-page attachments. Those packages are going to be costly, not to mention unwieldy for signature-gatherers.
The other option is to rewrite the Charter. This is what the Charter says about that:
The state law governing this is Section 18 of The Home Rule City Act, Act 279 of 1909. It says that a general revision of the charter may be called for by a 3/5 vote of the city council or by initiatory petition. That puts the revision question on the ballot, and if voters approve, "a charter commission shall be elected within 60 days consisting of 9 electors of such city having a residence of at least 3 years in the municipality." The charter commission re-writes the charter and submits it to the voters for approval. If the voters reject it, the commission can revise and submit it for voter approval 2 more times.
If I've misinterpreted the City Charter or state law, please let me know. My email address is email@example.com and my phone number is 517-505-2696.
Here is how I would amend the City Charter:
Currently, the elected officers are the mayor, the city clerk and the six council members. I'd reduce the number of council members to 7, one for each ward and 3 at large. The mayor would be recognized as the executive head of the city for ceremonial purposes and would also be a voting member of the council. Council members (including the mayor) would serve 4 year terms, as they do now. Here's how that change would look:
The council would elect a city manager and a city clerk, each of whom would work under contract. The city manager would be in charge of the administration of municipal affairs under the direction and supervision of the council:
And so on.
I downloaded a PDF version of the City Charter from the City's website and converted it to Microsoft Word, so making the changes is pretty easy. A lot of them consist of replacing "Mayor" with "CITY MANAGER" and that can be done quickly with Word's search and replace function.
Send comments, questions and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.