City impacted by recent ballot legislation

Published 9:56 am Thursday, January 14, 2016

A controversial new Michigan law has tied the city’s hands behind its back in terms of distributing information about its upcoming charter amendment ballot proposal.

Last week, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 571 into law, which, among other provisions, prevents local governments and school districts from distributing information about ballot proposals 60 days before they go before voters. According to the new law, public bodies are forbidden from using funding or resources to discuss these issues to local voters through radio, television, mass mailing or prerecorded telephone messages.

For city leaders, this mandate presents a massive setback as they geared up for the March election.

On the upcoming ballot, the city will ask voters  whether or not they wish to approve an amendment to the city charter that would turn the position of city clerk from an elected position to one appointed by the city manager, with the city council’s approval.

The city prepared some materials explaining the language of the upcoming proposal, what would happen if it was passed, why it was created, etc., which was to be distributed to voters around 30 days before the election, said City Manager Kevin Anderson.

With the primary election taking place on March 8, the 60-day deadline imposed by SB 571 prevents city hall from moving forward with these plans, Anderson said.

“You can’t put that type of information in a city newsletter, you can’t put together a questions and answer flyer, you can’t do any of that because you’d be violating state law,” Anderson said.

With this provision being added to the piece of legislation just before its passage by the Michigan legislature, Dowagiac and other state municipalities had little time to react to the change, Anderson said. As a result, Dowagiac cannot remove the ballot proposal from the March primary election.

With many voters typically studying up on issues in the last few weeks before the election, the law change severely restricts the city’s ability to inform the public about what they will be voting for at the polls, Anderson said.

“From a philosophical standpoint, citizens elect people to research things and bring that information back to them, and this law prevents half of that equation,” he said.

Mayor Don Lyons was also critical of the law, saying that it would essentially cut off communications between the city government and its electorate in the weeks leading up to elections.

“It seems so basic to me — if the school needs a new roof, if the city charter needs to be amended, why are we prohibited from talking about that,” Lyons said. “It beggars belief they could do something like that.”

While the city manager is hoping that lawmakers go back to the drawing board and correct or remove the provision before the election, Anderson said that such a quick turnaround is unlikely. Instead, his office and city council are working with the city attorney to determine what they can do under the law to make sure voters know what they need to know heading into the polls this March.

“We’re trying to figure it out right now,” Anderson said. “Our goal is make sure people who want information get information.”