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What you need to know about Lansing’s charter revision ballot proposal

facade of Lansing City Hall building
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
The November ballot asks Lansing voters if there should be "a general revision of the Lansing City Charter." If approved, the proposal could pave the way for dramatic changes at City Hall.

Voters in Lansing have a question to consider on the ballot this Nov. 7 general election:

"Shall there be a general revision of the Lansing City Charter?"

The proposal may be short, but it could have big implications for the future of the city's government.

Here's what you need to know.

What is the City Charter?

The City Charter essentially serves as a smaller version of a constitution. It outlines the rules and regulations that give structure to Lansing’s government.

Why is this question on the ballot?

Every 12 years in Lansing, voters essentially get a chance to decide if they want to rewrite their local constitution.

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said the reoccurring ballot question has been a feature of the city’s elections since 1978 after the current charter was enacted. The first time the question appeared at the polls was in 1987.

A photo of Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope in his office
Zoom image
Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said the proposal before voters this November could enable changes to how the city structures its government.

The proposal isn't the only way to formally revise the city's guidelines; the City Council could authorize the review process, or citizens could initiate a revision through a petition.

But Swope said Lansing's approach to automatically asking voters is unique.

“We're one of very few cities in the state of Michigan that actually have this requirement," he said.

What kinds of changes to the charter are possible?

A charter review would force the city to consider any changes. That could range from correcting spelling errors to completely revamping Lansing's form of government.

The city currently has a system with a mayor who acts as chief executive. They manage the city’s workforce and negotiate with the City Council on spending and policy priorities.

Under charter review, residents could change that and adopt a different set-up.

The new charter could change the number of councilmembers, modify departments or move power away from the mayor’s office.

The only real limit is state law.

“There's just a lot of different forms of government that you can have that are allowable in Michigan, and that constitution is what lays out what we have here in the City of Lansing,” Swope said.

When would a charter revision take place?

If voters support a revision, it would take some time to make any changes. Swope said the city would first have to elect nine residents to serve on a review commission.

The commission would have three years to research, hear public comment and write a new charter. That draft proposal would again need approval from voters before it could be put in place.

How have residents voted on previous proposals to revise the charter?

Approving the charter review process on this year's ballot would be unprecedented for Lansing.

The charter revision question has appeared at the polls three times in the past 36 years.

"Every time this has been on the ballot, since our current charter, the voters have overwhelmingly voted no," Swope said. "We don't know what will happen this time. That remains to be seen.”

The last time the question came before voters was in 2011. That year, about 65% of voters opposed a revision, according to the Ingham County Clerk's archived results.

Swope said he isn't sure why the public has opposed previous opportunities to review the charter. He suggested the community might have preferred making small changes to the city's rules through amendments, rather than taking on a wider overhaul of its guidelines.

What are the downsides to a charter review?

A headshot of MSU Law Professor Daniel Rosenbaum wearing a suit and tie.
Daniel Rosenbaum is an assistant professor at Michigan State University's law school.

A charter revision could incur additional expenses for residents. The city may have to administer a separate special election to elect a review commission. Commissioners would also require funding for salaries and to hold their meetings.

Revisions may also not make much of a difference.

"Perhaps voters vote yes, not really thinking about it. And we go through hearings, we create a commission, and they do all this work, and not much comes of it," said Daniel Rosenbaum, an assistant professor at Michigan State University's law school.

But Rosenbaum noted it's interesting that Lansing actively asks voters if they want to revisit their charter.

"Either this is a great way of keeping the voters engaged in the evolution of their local constitution, or it's an inefficient waste of time," he added.

Is this the only way the city can change its own rules?

If a majority of residents oppose a lengthy charter review process, that doesn’t mean Lansing’s government is set in stone.

Swope said the city's rules can still be modified through specific charter amendments, initiated either by the council or a citizen-led petition.

The charter has been amended seven times since 1978. Examples of previous amendments include decriminalizing marijuana in the city and adjusting the terms of certain employee contracts.

The city clerk said these kinds of changes typically have a more limited scope.

"Amendments are regulated, to be sort of more simple, one topic changes," said Swope. "Whereas charter review means it could be an overarching change in a charter, so it could affect many or almost every provision of the charter."

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, voters will need to consider if they want to bear the cost of updating City Hall’s rules, or continue making piecemeal change through the occasional charter amendment.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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