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Government > Stir It Up

Real representation

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Published 4/8/2009

Talk about a dysfunctional City Council. Last week's dust-up between President Monica Conyers and council member Sheila Cockrel — just in time to entertain visitors for the NCAA Final Four games — is just another reason for Detroiters to be fed up with the way politics works — or doesn't work — around here.

What we witnessed in that exchange is just another straw on an already-broken camel's back. A lot of us have had it with these antics. Early last week, before Conyers and Cockrel got into it after Sheila pointed out Monica has some anger-management issues to work out, radio talk host Mildred Gaddis asked listeners what they wanted the next City Council to look like. Callers to the popular morning show on WCHB, AM 1200, gave her an earful.

Council members should have been listening. One caller said that each group in the community should be represented — Latino, Asian, old and young. Another said they should be moral, have ethics and "speak properly when in front of a camera." A couple of callers said people who want to be on council should be riding the neighborhoods. Still another asked listeners to imagine "a school board, mayor and city council working in conjunction, with only the interests of the citizens" in mind.

Nobody that I heard said the City Council we have is just fine and they'd like to see it again. I haven't found any actual polling about it, but I would guess that a lot of Detroiters are tired of these elected representatives who can't seem to work together.

"You have a crisis-filled leadership right now. People are frustrated," says Councilmember Kwame Kenyatta.

People have been frustrated with council for a long time. We've seen a good 30 years of focus on downtown development and mostly token gestures toward neighborhood enhancements. One reason for that has been our system of electing members citywide rather than as representatives of specific neighborhood districts. The result is that nobody on council is held directly responsible for what happens in any neighborhood. Council members don't actually run against each other in a contest of ideas. It's a popularity and name-recognition contest that rewards incumbency ad nauseam — those who paid attention in Latin class will know that means to the point where you feel like throwing up.

The cure for this nausea is to have council members elected by districts. One caller to Gaddis' show called for this very thing, and he is not crying alone in the wilderness. Activists who want to change the system are getting organized. They've been collecting signatures on a petition to amend the city charter so that council members will be elected from seven city districts while retaining two at-large seats. In about a week that effort will ramp up big time. Detroiters for City Council by District, a coalition of organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the Black State, Our Detroit, ACORN, Wayne State University law students and others, are rolling out a serious campaign to put the question before Detroiters on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The idea has even made it into council's chambers. "I'm going on record for the first time saying that I think it may be time," says Kenyatta, who recently announced a run for mayor in the August primary. "The leadership crisis that the city now faces and has faced for the last two years is an indication to put the choosing of leadership not just in the hands of people but close to people. Council by district is closer to the people."

It could make a huge difference to Detroit. City Council members elected by district would be directly accountable to the people in their district. And if folks aren't happy with the way their council member operates, they can debate it and run their own candidate from the neighborhood — someone who knows the terrain and the issues that are important.

In fact, our present system is something of an aberration. Most big cities in the United States elect their city councils by district.

"There is a massive groundswell for it," says LaMar Lemmons III, a former state representative who supports the idea. "If you elect council members by district, their whole focus would be improving the district. Right now, there's no way to hold any of them accountable. If you represent a district, any group in the district is going to get your attention."

For more than 30 years, the focus of Detroit development has been in the downtown area, as the neighborhoods decayed and festered. The argument was that the city needed a viable downtown in order to prosper. It didn't work. Maybe if we have viable, vital neighborhoods where people want to live, then businesses will want to locate in the city. I'm ready to go that route.

The question of switching to a district system lost on the 1996 ballot. Opponents of the idea — including the majority of council members at the time — claimed that it's too easy for corruption, turf wars and influence-peddling to take root in the district system. Anyone who's witnessed the corruption in Detroit politics over the past few years has to be laughing at that concern.

"There can be corruption in any system," says Lemmons. "We just got rid of a corrupt mayor. Does that mean we should not have a mayor? It depends on the individual and his own integrity."

Right now there are two paths to changing the system taking shape. The first is on the May 4 ballot. There is an item calling for the creation of a charter commission to change the city charter. The original impetus for that item was to clear up how city council can remove the mayor without having to go through the governor, as it was done last year to get rid of Kwame Kilpatrick. However, that commission could also address the way we choose council members. That's the more involved way of doing it. If voters approve the creation of a commission, then commissioners need to be elected, they would then rewrite the city charter, then voters would need to approve the proposed changes, and, if approved, then the system would go into effect in the next election. It would take years and immense behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.

The other path, pursued by Detroiters for Council by Districts, is to collect 31,420 valid signatures on petitions by Aug. 4 and get it on the Nov. 3 ballot. If approved by voters, it would be a simple amendment to the city charter to create the hybrid seven-district, two at-large system.

Those two paths could work in tandem. If the charter commission gets approved, and voters approve a district system on a direct vote in November, there would be a clear mandate for the charter commission to underscore the move. That would be an unusual incidence of political convergence around here.

The best and most effective way to fix Detroit is for citizens to organize block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. It follows that our political representation should be neighborhood-based too. Imagine that!

Find out more at councilbydistricts.org.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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