City votes to make key charter change

July 6, 2012
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Grand Rapids city commissioners agreed recently to sever ties with City Comptroller Donjio De Jonge. And if the governor’s office and the state attorney general agree with commissioners, voters will be given the opportunity to completely cut the cord in November.

That situation doesn’t come as a surprise to De Jonge. In fact, she proposed it by recommending to commissioners that the city begin appointing a comptroller rather than have one chosen by voters, which has been the case since 1916.

To make the change, De Jonge said city commissioners should have the legal department write an amendment to the city charter. She explained that the change would let the city manager appoint a comptroller and would require commissioners to approve the selection with a super-majority, or two-thirds, vote.

“This proposal changes the method of selection,” said City Attorney Catherine Mish.

A written charter amendment would then go to Lansing, and Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette would have to sign off on it before it could appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“This would take the politics out of it,” said Commissioner Ruth Kelly.

“The (current) charter doesn’t spell out the qualifications for the position. There still would be a role for the elected representatives in your proposal, and that’s very important to me,” said Mayor George Heartwell.

De Jonge made the suggestion as part of a report she filed recently, one she felt would make the city’s financial system run smoother. The system is now divided among the comptroller’s, treasurer’s and CFO’s offices. De Jonge said her proposal would construct a “reporting bridge” that would link the offices together, re-write the positions in the departments, create an analytics role and develop a functional audit service.

“The city must bring its financial system under one roof,” said De Jonge.

“It may seem like you’re shrinking things, but you’re really expanding the scope and the range of work for the comptroller,” Commissioner James White told De Jonge.

De Jonge said making the organizational change would give the city a more efficient chain of command and work force, as well as reduce costs. The amendment would also list the qualifications applicants for the comptroller’s post would have to meet.

“I don’t qualify for the proposed position. I don’t have the credentials,” she said of her proposal.

“The fact that you’re not trying to create a job for yourself,” said Commissioner Elias Lumpkins, who paused before saying, “Not many people put themselves out of a job.”

De Jonge was appointed to the post in 2010 to replace then-Comptroller Stanley Milanowski, who retired to run for state office but then chose not to do so. Voters elected De Jonge to the position last November to complete the final two years of Milanowski’s four-year term. De Jonge also asked for a pay cut when she became comptroller, and commissioners complied with her request. She teaches public finance at Grand Valley State University.

Commissioner Walt Gutowski said Grand Rapids is one of only two Michigan cities that still elects a comptroller. Voters have chosen individuals for the post since Rudolph Doornink won the first election 96 years ago.

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