A Charter Commission should be approved in order to save the City of Saginaw from problems of factionalism that have divided it.

Posted In: Politics, Local, Opinion, News, Local,   From Issue 627   By: Robert E Martin

07th December, 2006     0

As a member of the drafting committee of the Saginaw Charter Commission it gives me great pleasure to announce that after two years of thoughtful, comprehensive, and inclusive work, the proposed draft for the new charter for the City of Saginaw is now complete.  Public comment will be solicited at the next meeting on Tuesday, December
12th.  Please download a copy of the proposed charter, view organizational flow charts, and read further background information here in this section.

-Robert E. Martin, Editor & Publisher Review Magazine
Drafting Committee, Saginaw Charter Commission

Downloadable Documents:

Attached for your reference is the 3rd draft of the Proposed Saginaw
City Charter, with changes and modifications from the original draft.

The second file (colors) shows the changes between first, second, and
now third draft. This is for your convenience, so you do not need to
hunt for changes, but if you need to print this out you will be using
a color printer.

Proposed 2nd Draft

Proposed 3rd Draft 2007 City Charter 12-12-06 -colors.pdf

Proposed 4th Draft 2007 City Charter 12-21-06.pdf

Fifth draft proposal1-4-06.pdf

Other documents:

The City Council and City Council Election Districts

Credit Against Property Tax

Limits on Abuse of Incumbent Power

New 2 Year Budget Cycle

Revised Tax Cap

The Elected Mayor

Commission Districts Map

Departments

Power Flow Chart

This article was written in the Summer of 2002, prior to the collection of signatures which placed the issue of Charter Revision on the ballot and established the Saginaw Charter Commission.  It serves as background for how key changes in the Charter evolved. 

A Charter Commission should be approved in order to save the City of Saginaw from problems of factionalism that have divided it.

By Robert Martin & Gregory Carl Schmid

"Surely, in the light of history, it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, `It can't be done.'” - Eleanor Roosevelt 

The Call for Fundamental Change at City Hall

A government that has been closed and unresponsive for many years cripples our community.  The city is saddled with the vestiges of race division that have historically been symbolized by the Saginaw River.  A few demagogues selfishly refuse to embrace the ideal that the city must become a colorblind political community if it is to move forward.  The budget process is bifurcated and misleading; city hall cries out for more and more taxes, but won't collect the taxes already owed, except to add insult to injury by attempting to collect taxes from businesses that have already paid them.

City Council has consistently refused to focus on public safety as the main priority of local government, and now the city that aspired to be everything to everybody is too broke to be much of anything to anyone.

Governmental regulation and state and federal involvement at the local level has increased dramatically over the past decades, and duplicity of services threatens city government with irrelevance.

City council elections attract a 17% voter turnout. The status quo wins by a landslide every time 83% of the people refuse to take the time to vote, but non-voters are a natural by-product of the political hopelessness borne of our present at-large election system.

People stay disengaged from city government because they feel our current system is rigged. Orchestrated council vacancies are followed by political patronage appointments of unelected persons, who are virtually guaranteed re-election due to the huge advantage of incumbency.

Understandably, people don't make voting a priority in city council elections, but they overwhelmingly vote down council demands for more money because they know they cannot trust city hall to spend money in an accountable and responsible manner.

City Council simply refuses to accept the reality that they cannotspend the kind of money City Hall had before the company left our company town, and council chooses instead to make the popular property tax cap (worth only $3 million in lost revenue - a small percentage of the total budget) a scapegoat for all Saginaw’s troubles.

Unelected boards and commissions (like STARS) create a perception that the main function of city government is to process political patronage. Scandal and crisis are the norm in city government.

Saginaw is bleeding jobs and has been losing population at the average rate of 900 people each year for 40 years, due in part to the perception of rampant crime rates and an irresponsible 50% city income tax hike.

Let’s face it, Saginaw is so completely dysfunctional that it seeks to even blame tavern owners in the Old Town District for problems associated with basic policing, and in the process they threaten viable entertainment districts throughout our fair city that have helped to define it as ‘cool’.

This is the reality that we face in Saginaw in the year 2004. As city we can hardly do worse than the system now in place.

Fundamental change is necessary, and the charter revision process will send a message to the larger regional community that the city means business, and is taking on the responsibility of governing itself rationally.  This is the first step in improving the image of Saginaw. The foundation of a city is its city charter. We the people have the power to replace our obsolete 1936 city charter with a new one that will make city government a stable resource for its citizens, and not just insider politicians.

A new city charter may eventually be adopted, and it may or may not reflect our fiscally careful and socially tolerant philosophies. Either way, a public debate on the basic framework of our city cannot help but be a good thing for Saginaw.

Citizen participation and engagement in government is the foundation of stability in a city made unstable by unpredictable backroom politics. 
 

Do We Solve the Problem by Creating More Factions? 

The challenges Saginaw faces are well known, but real solutions tend to sink straight to the bottom in Saginaw because of the nature of elitist politics in a closed political system.  Good ideas are discouraged and mocked by defeatists, who insist, “It can’t be done”.

For example, former city councilman Mike Hanley, in his last regular Review column, bemoaned the fate of Saginaw at the hands of race-affiliated factionalism, going on to state that, “the biggest problem Saginaw's had, the one that leads to virtually all others, from concentrated poverty and crime to poor housing conditions to blight and budget crises - has been depopulation.”

It is puzzling that his accurate observations of these facts is followed by his outright rejection of an open ended charter revision process, which provides a logical and orderly way for citizens to make solutions. Mr. Hanley stated that the recent firing of city manager Deb Kimble has put our present system in such crisis that it is too unstable to handle the Charter Revision process at this time.  His logic, however, seems confusing when the solution he proposes to the crisis is nothing more than a plan to form yet another new unelected group (faction). 

Ambition must be overcome by institutional change so that power does not become self-perpetuating, and the powers that be completely free of the accountability of democracy.

This is why Michigan law set up the charter revision process, and why it forbids city officers or employees from serving on the commission; the process is to be citizen driven, performed by independent private citizens with ordinary common sense and a good work ethic, not by ambitious insiders.  
 

A Constitutional Convention for Saginaw 

A ‘constitutional convention’ like that held by the founding fathers of the U.S. Constitution is an accurate analogy for the city charter process, with the exception that the U.S. Constitution governs a completely sovereign nation while a city charter is subject to both state and federal law.

A new City Charter must find a way to fit within this system, and not to waste what little money it has left available to it.  The Charter Commission, if the vote in November is “Yes”, does no more than start in earnest the debate as to whether our community could benefit from a change in the way Saginaw governs itself.

There are 24 Charter Commissioner Candidates from all over Saginaw. Each voter gets to vote for nine of the candidates (caveat – the authors are bothcandidates for Charter Commission).

The nine candidates with the most votes would make up the commission. The commission will present a new city charter in the form of a ballot proposal within a few months.  That proposal will mean nothing if it does not pass the test of the ballot box, and the commission would get up to three chances in the next three years to propose a new city charter that meets with voter approval.

The commission, in open public meetings, will explore the political process and debate solutions that can set the groundwork for a renewed social compact in Saginaw. The commissioners have no power but to ultimately propose a ballot question for voter approval, and so the process of rational thought should not be warped by the press of expediency. 

The personal ambition of commissioners will, in the context of free exchange and competition of ideas, spur them to honor and boldness of intellect, and to make only carefully considered proposals to the voters, so as not to suffer the humiliation of rejection.

In this respect, natural instincts will bring out the best, not the worst, that human nature has to offer, because a successful new City Charter will be a legacy and crowning achievement for all who participate.

There are some limitations on the Charter Convention process that did not apply to the founding fathers. Saginaw is a home-rule city, a mere creature of statute with no inherent right to exist as such. The city exists only at the pleasure of the state of Michigan; it can be put into receivership, merged into a regional government, or even dissolved; it possesses only those powers granted by statute.

State law supercedes and preempts local ordinances, and state law is becoming so comprehensive that cities are rapidly losing relevance.  Federal law, in turn, supercedes and preempts state and local law in many important respects.

Much has changed since our City Charter was enacted in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression and the “New Deal”. Cities need to find their own place in the modern scheme of things.

This is why we recommend wholesale restructuring of city government. We propose specifics, like a hybrid district (ward) system, ward commissions, and an all-city assembly to act as a citizen back-stop against power plays by any one special interest group.

We intend to keep an open mind in this process, and there are many goods ideas out there, but few can argue against the need for fundamental change at City Hall.

We support a professional city manager (not a strong-mayor form), but the council-manager form of government needs to evolve to provide for a balanced accountability.

There is a movement within the Municipal League to "reform the reform movement", and the reforms we intend to propose if elected are consistent with that evolution of the professional manager form of government.  This might include an intermediate grievance (or no-confidence) process for managers and department heads so that citizen concerns can be heard, but outside the harsh atmosphere of brinksmanship that currently exists in a system where the council has just one employee; the city manager.

Council can fire the manager or not, but cannot do anything in between, and has no say whatsoever with regard to employees and department heads.

The city needs to institute performance measures at all levels of city hall to promote accountability, without creating make-work. 
 

The Case for an ELECTED MAYOR and a Hybrid WARD SYSTEM 

Under the current charter, the city council appoints one of its own members a "ceremonial" mayor, as its first act after each city council election.

Council appointment of mayor has fractured past city councils and does not provide a mandate for leadership. Former Mayor Crawford, who endorses an elected mayor system, describes the current process as doing no more than making “half the council mad at the other half”. 

Our current Mayor Ham, who refers to council members, and council chambers, as being “hers”, was elected to city council with 4,200 votes (a mere one in every ten registered city voters). Ham also supports the elected mayor system.

Saginaw should have an elected mayor, but not a so-called “strong” mayor. Strong mayor is a legal term of art, and should never be confused with the concept of an elected mayor in a council-manager form of government.

Flint demonstrated that a "strong mayor" form would not work for Saginaw. Saginaw's government already produces too much political patronage, and were the legislative and executive branches separate, in adversarial relation one to another, would only produce more.

The city at-large should elect the mayor, and an elected deputy mayor to take the mayors place in case of vacancy. They should be elected in presidential and gubernatorial election years, respectively, so that much higher turnouts can produce a greater sense of legitimacy; both should serve four year terms as at-large members of City Council as part of a mixed at-large/ward system which reestablishes council districts.

A hybrid ward system is another essential change, but unlike the ward system of the past a new set of 5 single-member council districts would all cross east-to-west and make the city to focus on “bridges, not rivers”.

A mixed ward/at-large system should feature a Mayor & Deputy Mayor, elected by all city voters, to represent citywide interests. This would help balance the system to prevent the perception of divisiveness that can result from a ward system in its pure form. A new Saginaw should also have Precinct representatives elected in each of equal 20 precincts empower each neighborhood.

Five districts, with 12,000 residents (± 8,000 voters) each, would prove manageable for door-to-door campaigning and constructive constituent relations.

The city is both too big and too small for a pure at-large council election system. It is unrealistic for any single council candidate to visit the 25,000 residences in the city. TV and radio ad campaigns are too expensive in our regional market. Newspaper endorsements, overwhelmingly reserved for incumbents, are the best a candidate can hope for.

In a ward system, council candidates will be able to go door to door, and they will take the time to do it because they know their competition will be out knocking on doors.

Each ward would be made up of 4 precincts each, and City Council candidates would naturally associate with precinct reps, who would themselves be going door to door; the ultimate winners of elections will be the voters themselves because they will be able to call the council members and precinct reps who first called upon them for their votes.  This will give people a reason to come out and vote, and the hope to participate in this city.

Ward systems today help insure an equal measure of representation for all people in every corner of the city. The bridge-ward system would help eliminate the river and factors like race and gender from city politics, and let real legitimate concerns be the basis for political decisions.

Precinct Representatives for each of 20 precincts in the city could serve as ombudsmen for voters in a small area (approximately 3,000 residents, or ± 2,000 voters each). They would serve on a quarterly "All-City Assembly" which would act as a "citizen backstop" against rash and imprudent sudden actions by the council, in order to promote stability through some real level of citizen participation.

Ward Councils and Ward City Councilpersons elected in each of 5 wards protect the interests that are in between the general and the narrow. Taken together, the 3 levels of this form of government would balance interests for a more rational decision making process, while is prevents over-centralization of authority and power-grabs by any special interest group.

The appointment process for council vacancies must also change. Presently 7 of 9 councilpersons are the product of council appointment after vacancies occurred. They win reelection because of the political momentum their status as incumbent provides; 95% of incumbents win reelection not because they deserve it, but because of the awesome advantage of incumbency.

Precinct reps within each ward should vote to replace their own councilperson from one of their own elected number, so that the person appointed is beholden only to the ward that elected him or her can keep a balance of representation on city council.

A new charter should also reform the appointment process on the 34 unaccountable boards and commissions in Saginaw. Precinct Representatives, elected for each of 20 precincts in the city, would provide a pool of elected persons who could serve on boards and commissions. Each ward could appoint one of its own precinct representatives to each board and commission, which would have the simultaneous effects of balancing representation on those boards, and making those board members accountable to the voters.

The charter commission should also take tax limitation seriously.  Alternatives to the present Tax Cap may be proposed, like a permanent targeted tax credit against the city's share of homestead property tax for every dollar of income tax a person pays in to the city.

This idea warrants some analysis; it would benefit working wage-earners, and probably would not burden or retired seniors (who already enjoy some property tax credits). It would encourage rather than repel working people to take up city residency and homeownership, while encouraging landlords to sell homes to their working renters, at a good price justified in part by the benefit of the permanent tax credit the potential buyer would be getting as a homeowner.

The “Taxpayers United Federation” is not categorically against all taxes all the time. For instance, People would probably support an earmarked millage strictly dedicated to improving safety and property values by 1) tearing down all the abandoned houses (hideouts) in the city, 2) facilitating cul-de-sacs and gated road ends in residential neighborhoods (to block escape routes), and 3) partnering with the private sector of install fixed web cams all over the city, freely viewable on-line everyone can see that our streets are safe.

This could be undertaken with our own police, fire, ambulance, and engineers as consultants, to make sure we improve the environment for law enforcement without impacting traffic, garbage or emergency services.

The program would also be in conjunction with a property owner enforcement program that would motivate the private sector with a carrot and a stick; a bankable property 5,000 tax credit for demolishing blighted houses on their own, and a cost recovery contingent-fee lawsuit program to recoup the money it costs for the city to remove a blighted homes when the owner neglects their responsibility to remove blight.

However, Saginaw will vote to KEEP THE CAP unless something better and more comprehensive is proposed; something that protects that taxpayer.

We have never before had the chance to replace the tax cap with an equally effective alternative tax arrangement, due to the single-purpose limitations that hamstring charter amendment proposals as distinguished from general charter revisions, which are not subject to the single subject restriction.

Tax limitation is essential to restraint of ambitious government spending, and serious tax limits are therefore the most essential element of a viable city charter.

Why Bother, and Why Now

Once upon a time Saginaw was so cool that you could hardly park downtown. Restaurants, jazz clubs, shopping; the place was really jumping 50 years ago. Things changed. The company left our company town. Many gave up and moved on.

We all stayed.

There’s something about living in your hometown that makes it all worthwhile. It’s not that our government caused all Saginaw’s problems; it just couldn’t find the focus to try to solve the problems, and couldn’t stay out of the way of private sector solutions.

City Council is not getting better; it is getting worse. By failing to act in the light of day, council has only convinced people more that they cannot be trusted with money. Council’s typical failure to react boldly and with resolve, rather than with lip service, in opposition to bar and teen-party violence may soon cost Saginaw’s downtown the newly renovated Howard Johnson Hotel.

New extra block grant opportunities seem spent before they are received, and without any direction or consideration for improving the environment for public safety. The current city manager crisis is an example of why we need to start the process of change now, before the dominoes all fall, rather than wait for a more stable time that may never come.

Saginaw is far from a lost cause, because the rule of law gives us the power to affect change though our collective political willpower. New doors open, and opportunity knocks if we will only answer, and take an active part in our diverse community. Take for example the French Quarter authentic Cajun restaurant on Washington near “The Dow”. They offer the best food from here to Detroit, with safe parking and a great atmosphere. But you have to take the first step, put away your false perceptions of rampant crime and go there yourself, before your fears force yet another rare jewel to be lost to us for lack of patronage. 

Now is the time, for if not now, when? We can hardly do worse than the system we now have in place. Fear of instability is a joke in the face of the utter instability we now suffer at the hands of the back-room politicians who run this town.

Only the hope of a better city government can project the image Saginaw must send to the region; that we are taking charge of our own affairs and are serous about doing business.

We, the people of the City of Saginaw, are a good investment, but now must prove it to ourselves and others by taking a stand now, before we lose our nerve.

As the Chinese proverb goes: Man who say it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.

This is participatory democracy at its finest. And Saginaw, often ridiculed, can serve as an example to the entire country of what people in a democracy can achieve – if they have the courage to take the first step.

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