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Put update of city charter on 2022 ballot

A city charter is a city's principal governing document – similar to a state or country's constitution. In Michigan, cities and villages exist within a framework that is part of a greater system of state and federal law, and that system is described in governing documents which fit into a hierarchy of importance and must be kept current. When a charter becomes outdated, it hinders the ability of a local government to serve its community properly.


Birmingham's city charter was first adopted in 1933, almost a century ago. In the city charter, it provides that all the power is vested in the city commission, consisting of seven members, all elected on an at-large basis in non-partisan elections, with a city manager who oversees all administrative functions of the government. The city commission is advised by numerous public boards, commissions and committees, all appointed by the city commission.


Over the years, the charter has been updated and modified to reflect evolutions in government, community and eras. But it has been a long time since that has occurred, and those in both the administration and on commissions and boards are now hamstrung by provisions in the charter that prevent a more optimized government for the citizens of Birmingham.


An example is the level of spending approval that must come before the city commission. Years ago it was established that if any department needing to spend over $6,000, even with an emergency authorization level, they must come before the city commission at their bimonthly meeting for commission authorization. Well, a long time ago, $6,000 was so much money, it could buy a nice automobile. Today, $6,000 won't buy a car – nor many city expenditures. It's time to alter that provision of the city charter.


An even more recent dilemma – the November city election – illustrates the need to update the city charter, which now provides that newly elected commissioners are to be sworn in at the commission meeting immediately following election day. However, county election officials may or may not have certified election returns by then. So the city attorney ruled this year that without certification of election returns, new commissioners could not be sworn into office at the meeting six days following the vote. Obviously, the charter should be changed to reflect current election law and realities on the ground when it comes to how long it takes to certify election returns.


City Manager Tom Markus has a whole list of similar necessary updates to be undertaken to make the city charter relevant for the 2020's and beyond, well into this century. We suggest the city commission appoint an ad hoc committee to study the charter and make recommendation of where the charter could be updated, with the final decision to be made after further review. A wonderful way to retain some of the collective wisdom lost with the recent retirements of former commissioners, both from this election and past ones, would be to tap them for this committee – by utilizing their knowledge of the city and the charter, its relevance and where to maximize and minimize the document, the city commission would avoid having to “reinvent the wheel.”


Once the panel recommends changes, the city commission would vote to determine what changes should be approached and city legal counsel would create the necessary legal verbiage. The proposed revised charter would be submitted to the governor for approval. The attorney general reviews it and advises the governor regarding its legality. The governor signs the charter if approved; otherwise the charter is returned to the charter panel with a commentary for recommended corrections. Ultimately, any change must then be approved by the community's electorate as a charter amendment.


Birmingham, it's time to update the governing document and put proposed changes before voters next year.

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