Detroit voter guide: Proposal S would give residen...

Detroit voter guide: Proposal S would give residents power to appropriate city funds

Meant to support the reparations measure on Detroit ballots, Proposal S has raised concerns about how it would be implemented and if it would be legal.

proposal s detroit voter guide 2021 election

Detroit voters who cast their ballots for the Nov. 2 general election will have the opportunity to decide whether to amend the Detroit City Charter to allow citizens to have more say in what the city spends money on. Proposal S would enable residents to allocate city funds through ordinances they enact by public vote. 

Here’s the text that will appear on your ballot:

“Do you agree to amend a provision of the City of Detroit Charter to amend Sec. 12-101 of the Charter that restricts power from the voters to enact City ordinances for the appropriation of money?”

The amended section shall read: The voters of the city reserve the power to enact City ordinances, call the “initiative”, and the power to nullify ordinances, enacted by the City, called the “referendum”.  However, these powers do not extend to the budget and the referendum power does not extend to any emergency ordinance. The initiative and the referendum may be invoked by petition as provided in this chapter.

The proposal is backed by Detroit attorney Todd Perkins and social welfare organization The People’s Voice. Perkins crafted Proposal S as a corollary to Proposal R. Proposal R asks whether Detroit City Council should form a reparations task force, and Proposal S would in theory create a funding mechanism to implement a task force’s recommendations, with a yes vote on both affirming that citizens of the largest majority Black city in the nation want reparations and that they intend to ensure that reparations are funded.

Read more about Proposal R, the ballot measure in the Nov. 2 general election that would create a reparations task force in Detroit. 

Proposal S would promote “direct democracy,” giving voters the power to make appropriations. It may be an unprecedented initiative in local elections, attorney Peter Ruddell told Crain’s Detroit Business. 

Critics of Proposal S say it would challenge the authority of elected officials and leave the door open to businesses and wealthy private citizens to achieve policy objectives that do not prioritize residents. 

Esmat Ishag-Osman, a research associate with the Detroit Bureau of the nonpartisan policy research organization Citizens Research Council of Michigan said that their analysis on Proposal S showed that who benefits from it could go both ways. 

“It could be a grassroots interest group, or it could be the wealthy business elite with a development project that might not benefit Detroiters at all — both can use this tool.” He added that the city council might take issue with it as well as “it usurps the power of the legislature, which has the power of the purse.”

This argument, Perkins said, is fear-mongering. “They’re laying fear at our feet to scare us from wanting to use the tool of our vote to bring life to reparations as we want to design it. The mayor says you can’t have government by referendum — but what was Proposal N? He asked [voters] for $250 million to tear down houses, but now that this is something we want to do on our own for ourselves, they call it bad policy.”

Ishag-Osman suggested that there is a strong possibility of litigation challenging the legality of Proposal S if it passes. As written, it would enable voters to enact ordinances for the appropriation of money. But, that power does not extend to changing the city budget itself. According to Ishag-Osman, that’s significant. 

“The city charter is very clear about how money can be appropriated in the city,” he said. It is either through the budget process, or through an amendment to an adopted budget which can essentially only be through city council with the recommendation of the mayor.”

But Perkins said that there is no desire for Proposal S to allow residents to tap into existing funds from the city budget. Instead, if it passes, he believes a portion of future recreational marijuana sales could be used to fund a reparations measure put before voters. 

“It’s already something that’s not actually on the balance sheet of Detroit,” he said. “If we can just follow through with what we want to do, we can set aside those funds, or even a portion of those funds, to create housing, education, economic development opportunities and things of that nature.”

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.