Lansing voters to decide whether to open up City Charter


The Lansing City Charter revision proposal on the Nov. 7 election ballot is either a waste of money or an exercise in democracy, depending on whom you ask.

Mayor Andy Schor is in the first camp. City Council member Ryan Kost is in the second.

The charter, created in 1978, is essentially the city’s constitution. One of its requirements is that every 12 years, voters have to be asked to authorize what amounts to a constitutional convention.

If a majority of voters approve the proposal, the process that will kick off is no small undertaking.  It requires voters’ choosing nine Lansing citizens to serve on a Charter Revision Commission in a special election early next year. Commissioners would put the charter under a microscope and recommend a new charter, which would be submitted to voters. If it’s rejected, the commission can disband. But it can also try again up to three more times. It must complete its work in three years.

And that could be expensive. The Schor administration says that if voters approve the ballot referendum, the special election would cost close to $150,000 — and that’s just the beginning.

If it’s approved, the administration said it will be asking the City Council for a special appropriation of $500,000 for the “initial costs” — record-taking and -keeping services, consultants, commissioner salaries, drafting expenses and so on. The city said it estimates the cost, adjusted for inflation, from what it cost in 1978 to create the current charter. And, the city says, it could cost more.

That cost is the first reason Schor gave for urging voters to vote no.

“Lots of things could happen in a charter commission,” Schor said, “and then it could go before the voters and fail, and then you spent the money for nothing, and so I don’t support it.”

Among the “lots of things,” Schor said, is interest in moving Lansing to a city manager system instead of a “strong mayor,” as the charter mandates.  Schor said some Council “regulars” — citizens who often speak during public comment — are the only ones he’s aware of who are clamoring for such a change. Schor referred to a city manager as a “bureaucrat who’s not responsible to the people” but instead reports to the City Council.

“If a charter commission passed,” Schor said, “you’d see a ton of things that could be introduced into that charter. You’ll have conservatives that want conservative things there. I’m sure they could play around with things with guns. You’ll have liberals that want things in there. You can have just tons of things that have come up over the years that could be messed around with. You could have removal of marijuana. You name it that you can think of, and it could get into that charter.”

Kost calls that democracy.

“Under a democracy, sometimes it does cost money to do things like this,” he said.

Moreover, he said he’s heard lower numbers. Regardless, “We’re willing to spend $40 million on a city hall that the Boji Group bought two years ago for $1.75 million,” he said, referring to the administration proposal to purchase and renovate the old Masonic temple on Capitol Avenue as a new home for city government. “I mean, we’re talking $500,000 here.”

Kost said he had been closer to a “no” vote personally, but constituents in the First Ward, where he is seeking reelection next month, convinced him otherwise. He described them as being from across the political spectrum.

“They don’t necessarily like this form of government,” he said of one of their chief concerns, although he stopped short of advocating a switch to a city manager system. He said he sees advantages of both.

Constituents have also told him they want the city attorney to be equally accountable to the Council and the mayor — a change Kost supports.

The charter says the city attorney is responsible to both the mayor and the Council, but “when you try to hold accountability, there’s only accountability under the Mayor’s Office,” Kost said.

Under the charter, the Council has the authority to approve or reject the mayor’s choice for city attorney, but only the mayor can fire the city attorney. Kost said the way to make the city attorney equally accountable to the Council is to give the Council authority to fire as well.  He was quick to say he is not suggesting that the current office holder, James Smiertka, needs to go.

“I like Jim,” he said.

What will voters do? If the results from the last time the issue was on the ballot are any guide, it will be resoundingly defeated. In 2011, 65% said no.


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