Friday, September 30, 2011

The Revised City Charter and the Environment

This November is what people call an "off election year." No congressional or state races, just Board of Education and Prop C.

But Prop C is pretty important - it's the new Revised Charter for the City of Detroit, which lays out how the government is structured and what it is supposed to do.

Since the end of 2010, an elected body of 11 City Charter Revision Commissioners have been combing through the Detroit City Charter and cleaning it up, revising clunky old laws (such as requiring a special Mayoral election that cost the cash-strapped City millions when the regularly scheduled election was only months away) and establishing new ones to strengthen language around fighting corruption (by creating an Inspector General), creating geographic parity in City Council representation (through the creation of Council Districts).

There are a lot of good changes in the Charter, and you can dig into them at this wonderfully thorough website created by two really dedicated Charter junkies:

But I am going to talk about the parts that directly address the environment.

The 1997 Charter revision established a new Environmental Affairs department, with some really awesome language:

"The purpose of this chapter is to conserve and protect the natural resources of the City of Detroit in the interests of the health, safety and welfare of the people, to promote improved social and economic conditions in the city and to protect limited environmental resources for the future benefit of city inhabitants."

WOW. And the very first item under that section read:

1. Develop and implement a coordinated and comprehensive environmental policy for the City of Detroit

If only they would. In any case, last year the Dept. of Environmental Affairs (DEA) got rolled into the Building Safety and Engineering Department, creating the Building Safety Engineering and Environment Department (BSEED). The new Revised Charter reflects that change, and removed the DEA while shifting all of its functions (plus a few more) into the renamed BSEED.

The new departmental "Powers and Duties" in the charter are:

11. Provide consultation with City departments regarding the implementation of any policies or programs concerning alternative and renewable energy

12. Administer and enforce all laws, ordinances and regulations relating to the use of land (“zoning”); and

13. Except as otherwise provided by law or this Charter, grant, revoke, or approve transfers of all licenses and permits required by any law or ordinance for any business and collect fees for licenses and permits

Here's another interesting section kept from the 1997 Charter:

Sec. 6-504. Conservation.
The Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department shall develop programs for the protection and conservation of natural resources within the City of Detroit.

Granted, I have only been in Detroit since 2008, so maybe this kind of thing is going on. But I don't know if all of the Environmental staff in the department are aware of their charter mandate!

And look!

Sec. 6-505.  Environmental Legislation.
The Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department shall propose new ordinances, laws and 
regulations to the Mayor, City Council and other governmental entities as appropriate for improvement 
of the quality of the environment and promotion of the mission of the Department. 

But did these things happen? Well, the new Revised Charter has a rather uncharacteristically toothy section requiring BSEED to study and implement a long-term strategic plan for the establishment, use and support of green initiatives, technologies and businesses, utilizing public and private partners. This plan would cover both municipal projects and operations, as well as citizen-led initiatives, be reviewed yearly, and require City Council approval for implementation. And some very strong teeth are written into this section - the study must be initiated within 3 months of the Revised Charter being approved, the plan must be completed within 6 months of the study and submitted to City Council for approval, and City Council is to create ordinances to implement the approved plan.

Wow. Sounds pretty good to me. Because timelines are written in, this duty shouldn't be so easy to ignore.

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