Off the Map
Dexter's trial by bureaucracy
by Natalie Burg
From the December, 2011 issue
"It shouldn't necessarily be easy to become a city," says Dexter's assistant village manager Courtney Nicholls as she rifles through a large box of papers in the village offices in downtown Dexter. "But I think it's possible for it to be a struggle without it being this drawn out."
She continues to sort through the documents, stacking them into several organized piles as she speaks.
"Sorry for the mess," she says. "I'd been putting all of our cityhood stuff in here, and I didn't realize how out of control they'd gotten."
The unruly stack of documents is an apt representation of the ordeal Dexter has been through over the last five years in its quest to incorporate. Don't be fooled, however: if you're looking for a nasty squabble, the village of Dexter's arguments for and against cityhood will put you to sleep. Though locals have a variety of talking points both promoting and refuting the benefits of cityhood, no one seems to be cracking skulls over the issue.
Even Jim Smith, the Dexter village trustee who has consistently spoken out against the pursuit of cityhood, makes the bottom line of his argument very clear:
"Until the residents say 'we want this,' I'll speak on behalf of those who don't want it," Smith says. "But if 51 percent or more say 'we want to do this,' then I'm fine with it."
Not exactly high-drama stuff. Nevertheless, Dexter's pursuit of cityhood has been riddled with a different kind of controversy. Rather than infighting amongst residents over whether or not Michigan's fastest-growing municipality (according to the 2010 census) should become a city, village officials have been struggling to simply give their residents a chance to make the decision themselves.
"From our perspective," says village president Sean Keough, "the process that we're going through for cityhood is not about success or failure. It's about educating the residents about the benefits and the disadvantages and giving them the right to choose. We're just having trouble getting to that
For Dexter, cityhood would remove an unneeded layer of government--as a village, it shares legal authority and some tax revenues with Webster Township. But the township doesn't want to give up some of the land Dexter wants. While the village and township try to work things out, the state agency in charge of the village-to-city transition has been, literally, all over the map.
If they weren't so frustrating, the village's near misses in its attempt to put the cityhood proposal before the public would be comical. Despite a considerable effort to present well-researched, viable applications to the boundary commission, a series of seemingly small technical issues repeatedly has plagued their progress.
In a perfect world, the transition from village to city is a fairly direct process:
- The village creates a proposed boundary for the future city.
- The village gathers signatures from 5 percent of eligible voters within those boundaries.
- The village submits the boundary map and the petition to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA).
- If LARA's boundary commission declares the petition and map legally sufficient, the application is sent to the director of LARA to be signed.
- A public hearing is set within the proposed city to hear citizen comment.
- Citizens have thirty days after the public hearing to request additional information. After all questions have been answered and information has been publicly posted, residents then have forty-five days to petition for a referendum vote.
- If a referendum is not held, the village moves directly to electing a city charter commission.
- If a referendum is held, citizens vote on the proposed change of status.
- If cityhood prevails, a commission is elected to draft a city charter for approval from the attorney general. The charter then goes to the public for another vote.
O'Brien's tongue is in his cheek--in the best of cases, the process can take several years. And Dexter's case, O'Brien acknowledges, has been notably protracted and difficult.
Dexter's first boundary map was rejected in March 2010 for legal insufficiency. Though it cost $38,000 to prepare, a wording issue caused it to be turned down.
"There was a problem with the legal description of property," O'Brien explains. "The signatures that came with the map were fine."
Today, Dexter officials look back at this moment as the one that made all the difference. In preparing their map, they could review past cityhood applications, but there was no way to get the boundary commission's comments before their map was formally considered for acceptance or rejection. As a result, their small error would end up costing them big.
"If we had had more interaction to get all of our i's dotted and t's crossed beforehand," says Keough, "if we were allowed to have the draft reviewed [by the commission], it would likely have passed."
Instead, Dexter had to start again from scratch. After correcting the legal description, making a few other recommended adjustments, and re-collecting 160 signatures, the village returned to the boundary commission this June. This time, though, Dexter officials were surprised to find representatives from Webster Township and the Dexter Historical Society at the meeting as well--with their attorneys. The township and the historical society, which owns Gordon Hall just west of the village, opposed the historic property's inclusion in the proposed city.
"We want to keep the status quo," explains township supervisor John Kingsley. "It's a historic part of Webster Township"--and the former home of village founder Samuel Dexter.
The township and society opposed Dexter's cityhood application by pointing out a legal gray area. The map of the proposed city included not only the present village but also an area--including Gordon Hall, the neighboring Cedars of Dexter assisted living community, and the Westridge subdivision--that is currently shared between the village and township under an Act 425 agreement. The agreement provides that the Cedars and Westridge would be annexed to the village at the end of the agreement. But the agreement didn't commit Gordon Hall to annexation--and Webster argued that the language in the act indicates that properties under 425 agreements may not be transferred or annexed while the agreement is in place.
It's an argument that could help Webster make its case to hang onto the shared property and one that has legal experts' heads spinning--but also one that hadn't been raised before.
"There were 425 areas in the first map," says Nicholls. "Westridge and the Cedars are both 425 properties, and they didn't make the argument then."
By anyone's estimate, it was going to be a tough call. The boundary commission--which is made up of three state appointees and two county appointees--asked for an opinion from the state attorney general before making its ruling on the issue.
And so, Dexter waited.
The 425 agreement between the village and Webster Township, negotiated in 1997, runs for fifty years. If Webster Township's argument were upheld, the entire area would have to be removed from the map of the proposed city.
That would leave residents in Westridge and the Cedars--including Keough and other village trustees--in political limbo. Though they are now voting residents of Dexter village, they could potentially be ineligible to vote in Dexter city elections--including those for or against cityhood--for the remaining thirty-six years that the 425 agreement is in force.
Webster isn't really concerned about those neighborhoods, since under the 425 agreement, they're already scheduled to be absorbed into Dexter in 2047. So why doesn't Dexter just create a new map that includes them but excludes Gordon Hall, which is Webster's real concern?
Well, it could--but the result would be a city map with a non-contiguous boundary. And having a non-contiguous boundary, the village has been informed, could compromise the success of its cityhood application--again.
"If I could have someone at the state level tell me that dividing Dexter into two was OK, we could go ahead and do that," says Keough.
When the boundary commission reconvened in August, the commission had before it a memo from its own staff stating the boundary map was legally sufficient with the 425 agreement areas included, as well as a decision from the state attorney general decision stating the same. And yet the commission ruled the map was unacceptable.
"The attorney general's logic was that the 425 agreement would just go away when we become a city," says Nicholls. "The logic concerned them [the boundary commissioners]. They didn't like how the AG got to his reasoning, so they ruled against it."
Webster Township's Kingsley says the commissioners were absolutely correct. "The AG's opinion was so flawed that it made so sense whatsoever," he says. "If that's true, what happens to the bank accounts, what happens to the other liabilities [when a village becomes a city]? That doesn't make a lick of sense to the average person."
Oddly, Dexter officials don't entirely disagree. The idea that a contract naming the Village of Dexter as a party would simply disappear when the village dissolves is a tough one for many to digest.
"It's not like when we're a city we don't have bond payments anymore," says Nicholls. "We would write into the charter that we'd take over the assets and liabilities, including the 425 agreements."
Despite the stunning setback, there was one faint glimmer of hope for the cityhood application. Technically, a boundary map isn't officially ruled insufficient until a statement to that effect is signed by the director of LARA, Steven Hilfinger. Keough and others were able to get his attention before the signing took place as a last-ditch effort to save their petition from a second demise.
Hilfinger agreed to review the case. While the boundary commission's decision was based on its concern about the attorney general's opinion, it also threatened to open a political Pandora's box: in the worst case, it could imply that no village could become a city without giving up all shared Act 425 properties.
In October, Hilfinger put the lid back on the box: he overruled the boundary commission and approved Dexter's map and petition. O'Brien says, "I was told that he followed the advice of the [boundary commission] staff."
"I'm very pleased with the state's decision because I think it was the right thing to do at this point in the process," Keough says. "It's great to get past this step, but there are a lot of steps ahead of us."
The next step, sometime after the first of the year, will be to hold the public meeting. The meeting will be moderated by the boundary commission, and afterward the commission will weigh in once again--this time, to finalize the boundaries of the proposed city. If it wants to, the commission could even remove the disputed area and make the border non-contiguous.
Meanwhile, Keough and Webster officials are meeting to see if they can negotiate a solution. "I believe the state would like nothing more than if Dexter and Webster could somehow work this out to their mutual satisfaction," says Keough.
"That's the first overture they've made to us thus far," says Kingsley of his recent invitation to meet with Dexter officials. "I don't know if we can [come to an agreement] or not. If they would have just used the existing [village] boundary, we wouldn't have even gone up to Lansing." He sees Webster's role as standing up for those property owners who never opted into becoming a part of Dexter when the governments approved the 425 agreement.
"It's very important to know that we still intend to meet with Webster," says Keough. "We want to make sure everyone is aware" of the village's plans.
As those discussions move forward, the village's ordeal could lead to some much-needed reform of the tortuous process in Lansing.
Keough says he hopes "that someone has recognized that there is something wrong with the process as we went through it." And O'Brien says that's exactly what's happened.
"It is unfortunate," the commission staffer says of the rigorous process with little guidance for villages approaching the cityhood issue. "We are in the ... very early stages of trying to change the administrative rules to try to alleviate that."
In the meantime, Dexter will continue to be Dexter. Which means, ironically, functioning in almost the same way it would if it were a city.
"We kind of function as a city now," says Nicholls. "We take care of our roads, we have contracts for police and fire. We just think we can do those things for less as a city."
[Originally published in December, 2011.]