Replacing Lansing's mayor with a city manager

August 15, 2015



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:

2-403 Petitions For Initiative And Referendum

.1 Initiative and referendum petitions must be signed by a number of City electors equivalent to at least 5 percent of registered electors of the City.

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:

    2-410 Charter Revision Question

The question of whether there shall be a general revision of the city charter shall be submitted to the voters of the City of Lansing at the November general election held in 1987 and every 12 years thereafter and may be submitted at other times in the manner provided by law.

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 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:



Chapter 1. OFFICERS 

   2-101 Elective Officers

.1 The elective officers shall be the Mayor AND eight SEVEN members of the City Council and the City Clerk.

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:



Chapter 1. STRUCTURE 

   3-101 City Council

The legislative power of the City is vested in the City Council. The City Council shall have the powers and duties provided by law or this Charter.


   3-102 Organization Of Council

.1 The City Council shall meet and organize each year at its first regularly scheduled meeting in January.


.2 At its annual organizational meeting the City Council shall select from its members INCLUDING THE MAYOR a presiding officer and a person to act in the absence of the presiding officer. They shall be known as the Council President and the Council Vice-President, respectively, and each shall serve a one year term.


.3 The City Clerk MAYOR shall preside until the City Council has chosen a Council President. Thereafter, the Council President shall preside at all formal sessions of the City Council when present.


.4 The City Council shall elect a City Manager and City Clerk.







   4-101 Mayor CITY MANAGER

The Mayor CITY MANAGER shall be the chief executive officer of the City of Lansing under the direction and supervision of the CITY Council and shall devote full time to the service of the City. The Mayor CITY MANAGER shall exercise all of the powers and duties granted to the Mayor CITY MANAGER by law or this Charter.


   4-102 Obligations Of Leadership

.1 The Mayor CITY MANAGER shall exercise supervision and coordination over the several departments of government, and see that the laws, ordinances, and regulations of the City are enforced and for that purpose, the Mayor CITY MANAGER shall be a conservator of the peace. The Mayor CITY MANAGER may exercise within the City the powers conferred upon sheriffs to suppress disorder and enforce the laws of the State and the ordinances and regulations of the City. 

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.


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