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Cover Story

A case against sprawl

Going to court over the future of southeast Michigan

MT Photos/Bruce Giffin
MT Photos/Bruce Giffin
Ferndale City Manager Tom Barwin
Attorneys Gary Benjamin ...
Richard Bernstein ...
MT Photos/Bruce Giffin
... and Vicki Kovari.
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Lansing lawmakers reach accord to increase support for mass transit

 

Published 8/18/2004

Paul Tait makes an unlikely target for critics who say out-of-step leadership seems determined to bleed southeast Michigan’s central cities dry while shoveling wads of taxpayer cash into the sprawling suburbs. Since 1972, when he was 25 years old, Tait’s sole employer has been the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, a little-known but immensely influential confederation of local governments from seven counties that is based in downtown Detroit. In 1998 Tait became SEMCOG’s executive director, which put him at the top of a publicly supported research, planning and advocacy organization with a $10.9 million budget, 76 full-time employees, and a host of boards and advisory committees. Last year, the organization decided, among other things, where more than $600 million in federal and state economic transportation infrastructure funds should be spent in the region.

Soft-spoken, immensely likable, trusted by elected leaders throughout the state, Tait climbed the ranks of his government-sponsored organization because he is an expert at keeping his head down and knowing which desks need to be crossed to get things done. And because public spending on roads and bridges — and the dearth of investment in public transit — has heavily influenced where people live, work, shop and play in the Detroit region, Tait is among the small cadre of players in government and business who really decide how southeast Michigan develops. In other words, Tait’s earned his reputation as a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat.

The same cannot be said of Tom Barwin, the 50-year-old city manager of Ferndale, a reviving inner-ring suburb of 22,000 folks just across Eight Mile from Detroit. The oldest of seven children, Barwin was born in Detroit and raised in Warren, the son of an insurance agent who died when he was just 44 years old and when Tom was still in college. Barwin has focused his long career in public administration not only on making a difference but also getting his work noticed. The whole idea of public service, Barwin asserts, is to push against convention to make things better. Sometimes that means sticking your neck out. At the start of his work life, when he was a police officer in Warren, Barwin organized in the police union to convince his chief and Warren’s mayor to change inflexible work rules to make it easier for Barwin and other young officers to attend college. When his superiors resisted, Barwin managed the campaign of a fellow officer who ran for mayor and beat the incumbent. Barwin was then appointed city administrator, a post that allowed him to hire the next police chief. Bottom line: The rules got changed.

In all of the Detroit metropolitan region, home to more than 100 local governments and thousands of public employees, Tait and Barwin stand out as among the most capable and respected. But where Tait views himself as a facilitator who helps SEMCOG’s local government members decide how to dole out a fortune in federal and state funds for transportation and economic development, Barwin sees his role differently: He’s a public interest activist set on reforming a system that from his standpoint is utterly incapable of spending public dollars in a way that makes his small city and, for that matter, the rest of the Detroit region a better place to live. His goal: Rebuilding SEMCOG’s entire governing structure to make it more responsive to people who live in cities. The issue, he says, is urgent; the way southeast Michigan is growing will either bankrupt communities or lead to the same sort of massive dislocations in the suburbs that Detroit and other cities have already experienced because of crumbling roads and failing infrastructure. This summer SEMCOG published a study that said the region would need $70 billion to maintain its transportation networks until 2030. The agency said only $40 billion is available from current tax funds, meaning that if nothing changes in the financing picture for roads and transit, roughly half the need will not be met.

An earlier SEMCOG study found that serving the region’s water and sewer needs would cost $52 billion over the next generation. Most of the money to meet that need is unaccounted for, and fully 40 percent of the estimate SEMCOG made is to bring water and sewer lines to spur home and business construction in places nobody now lives and are still open fields, forests and wetlands.

“SEMCOG is bleeding us dry,” Barwin says. “We are $30 billion in the red as far as our current transportation infrastructure, and $60 billion if you count water and sewer. That’s a $2 billion per year deficit path these guys are leading us down. And they are supposed to be the experts.”

A year ago, with the help of a group of seven like-minded activists that included a blind expert on disability law from Farmington Hills and one of the nation’s savviest neighborhood organizers from Detroit, Barwin convinced his City Council to file a lawsuit against SEMCOG in Wayne County Circuit Court. At issue is Barwin’s contention that the way SEMCOG chooses projects and spends public dollars for transportation favors the largely white and upwardly mobile outer suburbs and unfairly ignores the needs of Detroit and its inner suburbs. The problem, the suit contends, is the voting structure on SEMCOG’s 51-member executive committee, the agency’s governing board, which is made up of local elected officials from seven counties. Detroit, with more than 900,000 people, has just three votes on the committee. Monroe County, with 150,000 residents, has four votes.

Via SEMCOG’s communications department, Tait and other officials declined to be interviewed for this article, saying their attorneys advised against discussing the case in public. Barwin is not nearly as reticent. “This lawsuit does not seek to pit one area of the region against another. Quite the contrary, because that is what we have had for the past 40 years,” he says. “We simply seek equal voting rights for all citizens in the vital area of taxpayer-funded transportation investments. We simply can’t afford the wasting of our resources any longer. As we attempt to compete in the global economy, we can’t continue to be so inefficient, so run-down, with our transportation system missing fundamental components and which does not provide basic choices for our residents and visitors.”

Colliding values

That SEMCOG finds itself under such sharp attack from one of its own members was not the outcome envisioned by its founders. SEMCOG was started in 1968 to rally local governments to a common purpose in the wake of the 1967 Detroit riot. Its members are local governments which pay annual dues and send representatives to sit on the executive committee and various subcommittees. During its first 25 years, SEMCOG was largely anonymous, serving as a forum for elected and appointed officials to share ideas in a place that seemed to have no agenda. And even if SEMCOG did have a point of view, it didn’t really matter. SEMCOG reviewed proposals for transportation projects but didn’t exert much authority to actually get them built.

Before the agency issued its gag order, Tait was fond of telling reporters that what his agency really did was dispense impartial and ground-breaking research, provide expert planning advice, and dedicate itself to serving the public interest. By virtue of his long career in one place, Tait himself had helped to supervise SEMCOG’s development into one of the nation’s largest MPOs, or metropolitan planning organizations.

SEMCOG’s development, though, was also helped immeasurably by Congress, which in 1991 changed the federal transportation spending law to give MPOs direct authority, a final say, in choosing and approving where state and federal transportation funds are spent. The change was designed to give citizens and local governments more say in how their regions develop. To some extent, that happened, especially for wealthy, predominantly white suburbs. The new spending power, and the river of cash that now flows through the organization, also altered the internal dynamic of how SEMCOG operated. Behind that carefully marketed image of professional competence is a public agency riven by discord about its priorities.

At the heart of SEMCOG’s distress is an old clash in values that new demographic, economic, and political trends have given fresh urgency: What should Detroit and its sprawling outer suburbs, the nation’s eighth-largest metropolitan region, do to better compete with Chicago, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and New York as a place to live, work and visit? Can Detroit and its neighbors really become the gleaming, innovative 21st century metropolis that Barwin envisions, or will it finally succumb to the drive-through, express-mart culture that seems steadily to be taking command?

On one side are powerful personalities, such as Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who insist that Detroit and its neighboring cities can only blame themselves for their condition. Patterson insists that spread-out suburban development is the source of the region’s pride and wealth, and that more is better. “I love sprawl,” said Patterson in a widely noted article published last fall. “I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can’t get enough of it.”

On the other side are a growing number of mayors, city managers and downtown business executives who are convinced that improving southeast Michigan’s quality of life depends on reversing the sprawl machine’s engine and directing more of the state and federal government’s wealth inward to revive the region’s cities and urban neighborhoods. Attractive, safe, enriching urban settings generate jobs, wealth and opportunity, as anyone who has visited the nation’s great cities can attest. Just look across Lake Michigan to Chicago, which in the 1960s was in much the same shape as Detroit, but is now experiencing a magnificent urban awakening as a result of timely decisions about public transit, housing, and economic and recreational development. What’s more, in an era of gaping budget deficits and citizen revolts against higher taxes, maintaining what’s already been built is ultimately a lot less expensive than building anew.

By far, the most articulate and outspoken proponent of these ideas at the moment is Barwin. In his seven years as city manager, Barwin has overseen the redevelopment of Ferndale’s business core on Nine Mile Road, helped to turn its storefronts and cafés into active places that people want to visit. Housing values have more than doubled. The city’s school system has been modernized and is stable, as is the city’s population after years of loss. It took almost $90 million in spending on streets and housing, businesses and schools to again make Ferndale a thriving place. All of that money came from city residents, who voted to raise their property taxes.

It absolutely slays Barwin when he thinks about how deeply his neighbors have dug in their own pockets to save their wonderful city while hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars — all of it approved by SEMCOG — flowed past Ferndale to build more highway lanes, more sewers, more jobs in sprawling newer and wealthier suburbs. For example, SEMCOG influences spending for the Transportation Economic Development Fund, a federal program designed to invest in urban core redevelopment. From 1988 to 2003, almost $400 million was disbursed in Michigan from the fund, much of it in southeast Michigan. Statewide, just 22 percent of the funds were actually spent in downtowns. The bulk went to suburban and exurban development.

In southeast Michigan, the winner turned out to be Auburn Hills, a largely white upscale suburban Oakland County community of 20,000 people that is little more than a series of exit ramps on the interstate. The city, which didn’t even exist until 1983, claimed over $25 million for streetscape improvements, new roads, a bicycle path and other amenities. That was $5 million more than Pontiac (population 66,000) received, and $2 million more than Detroit.

“Our region has practiced an ingrained pattern of build and abandon,” Barwin says, “a practice which is placing a growing number of once proud and vibrant communities and school districts near collapse.”

If you happen to be one of the 5 million or so people who live in southeast Michigan it is clear which side — rebuild or abandon — is winning. Though the region’s population increased just 5 percent from 1990 to 2000, it spread out so fast that nearly 20,000 acres a year were developed for roads, parking lots, luxury subdivisions, strip malls and businesses. From 1990 to 2001, 220 new shopping centers and stand-alone stores were built in the region, only a handful in Detroit and its older suburbs. By the end of 2000, 164,000 acres, nearly 90 percent of it farmland on the outer edges, had been converted to new development, a rate of development three to 10 times faster than population growth, depending on which set of statistics is cited. Even SEMCOG’s number crunchers acknowledge that metropolitan Detroit is sprawling faster than almost any other urban region in the nation.

It’s little wonder that Patterson — who sits at the very top of an unofficial alliance of sprawl machine developers, road builders, business executives, real estate agents and state elected leaders — surveys that sprawling, congested landscape and celebrates. From 1969 to 2000, Oakland County and the five neighboring suburban counties added 1.1 million new jobs, experiencing a 146 percent increase. Wayne County, including Detroit, lost 209,000 jobs, suffering a reduction of nearly 20 percent. “The next time you hear the word sprawl, embrace it,” Patterson said in an article reprinted in several suburban newspapers and business journals. “It simply means economic development. It means jobs. It means the freedom to choose. It translates into quality of life.”

But does it? SEMCOG’s pursuit of new highways and its inability, even refusal, to develop any regional rapid transit system means that 94 percent of all Detroit-area workers commute by private vehicle, causing the sixth-worst traffic congestion in the United States, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Moreover, young adults across the region are so tired of sitting in some of the country’s worst traffic jams and holding dead-end jobs that they are abandoning Detroit’s centerless suburbs in droves. Many of the more than 200,000 young people who left Michigan in the 1990s came from the Detroit metropolitan region, according to the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. No other major metropolitan area in the country suffered such a severe brain drain. Business executives for major employers based in southeast Michigan complain they are having trouble recruiting top talent to join their firms because other metropolitan areas offer more opportunity for recreation, cultural enrichment, housing choices, urban energy and efficient public transportation.

And as all those new starter mansions and upscale strip malls and state-financed roads spread farther and farther out, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties’ inner-ring suburbs, with 1.5 million people, fought to stay even. They did so by taxing their own residents to pay for street improvements, school reconstruction, housing and parks. Meanwhile, Detroit’s high taxes were one important reason that it lost 80,000 people in the 1990s.

Said another way, sprawl, a genuinely American form of civilization that has been embraced without question for 50 years in the Detroit area, has winners and losers. At the start of the 21st century, winners tend to be white, wealthy, conservative and desperate to live ever-farther from the city in once-pastoral settings that too quickly become just like the crowded, littered, stressful places they left. The flip side is that more than 2.4 million people, the half of southeast Michigan’s residents who live in Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs — many of them children, the elderly, African-American, poor or jobless — aren’t on the winning side. The American Dream, it turns out, only applies for some of us.

Before the judge

Where do you go to fix such a mess? Follow the money. Sprawl is fueled by massive government financial intrusion in the markets for land, housing and business development. Simply put, sprawl cannot exist without a penetrating distortion of the free market, which the federal government and the state are all too ready to provide in great heaps of cash for roads, sewers, water systems, job training, economic development grants, tax breaks and business subsidies. Each year the state and Michigan’s local governments provide business with nearly $13 billion in grants, loans, tax breaks, subsidies, infrastructure projects and other economic development programs, most of it invested outside cities.

An acre of land in Livingston County, the fastest-growing area in the state, gets a whole lot more valuable if the government builds a road to it, provides water and sewerage for it, and even puts up some cash to help a new business get started nearby. One of the great ironies in the lively discussion about how to grow smarter in Michigan is that the conservative business and political interests who defend the “free market,” and decry taxes and government interference in their affairs, are the most ardent defenders of sprawl and its government-supported financial roots. While whining about the liberals and their supposedly free-spending ways, conservative business executives and developers are the first in line for government development money, taxpayer-supported bonds and other goodies without which their projects would not be successful.

Thus the halls of state government are important forums for addressing sprawl and its ugly mirror image, urban decline. In fact, enough people, even moderate suburban Republicans, have become sufficiently concerned about sprawl and its consequences in Detroit that they helped to elect Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who ran and won a close race on a platform promising smarter ways to grow. Granholm’s economic development strategy is focused on rebuilding cities, conserving natural resources and open lands, slowing sprawl and making Michigan a more attractive place for talented young people to settle. Last year she delayed 17 new highway projects, 10 of them in Oakland County, in order to spend the money on highway repairs. This year she awarded $100,000 “cool cities” grants to spur innovative downtown development in 17 cities; one went to Ferndale and three projects were awarded grants in Detroit.

But Granholm — nervous about challenging the Republican-controlled state Legislature over the major economic development accounts — has not moved aggressively to take command of the big-ticket programs that really drive sprawl, like the $3 billion state transportation budget.

The courts also are useful forums for making the case against sprawl — if you can figure out which laws to apply. The city of Ferndale, the activist group MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength), attorney Richard Bernstein and several other co-plaintiffs put their heads together last summer to figure that one out. Their case, which had its first hearing before Circuit Judge John H. Gillis Jr. on Aug. 12, is essentially based on state civil rights law. SEMCOG, the plaintiffs assert, is violating the law by denying minorities and disabled citizens in Detroit and the inner suburbs, who rely heavily on mass transportation, the ability to live their lives as easily as people with cars. Bernstein, who is both a plaintiff and co-counsel with Michigan Legal Services attorney Gary Benjamin, is framing the legal issues around the state Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a provision of that law that prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, and two state constitutional guarantees: equal protection and the right to travel.

The lawsuit argues that SEMCOG gives much greater consideration to building roads for people who drive and live in the largely white and wealthy outer suburbs. Simultaneously, the agency discriminates against the poor, minorities and disabled people who must rely on the region’s inadequate public transit systems.

Neither Barwin nor his colleagues say the discrimination is willful and purposeful in the same way that Southern restaurant owners denied service to African-Americans. Rather, they say the accumulated decisions about transportation spending reflect the structure of SEMCOG’s executive committee.

The challengers say that the executive committee is overwhelmingly dominated by delegates from the newer suburbs, to the detriment of Detroit and the older suburbs with much higher minority populations. Detroit, with 920,000 residents, has three votes on the SEMCOG executive committee, or one vote for every 307,000 residents. Fast-growing Livingston County, which has 172,000 residents, has four votes on the executive committee, or one vote for every 43,000 residents. Monroe County also has four votes, or one for every 40,000 residents, as does St. Clair County. Oakland County has nine votes to Wayne County’s 12, a 25 percent difference in voting strength. But Oakland County has 40 percent fewer residents than Wayne County.

Bernstein and Benjamin assert that the reason for this disparity in voting strength between Detroit (along with its inner suburbs) and the surrounding communities is largely due to race. The 2000 Census identified fewer than 1,000 African-Americans living in Livingston County, or well under 1 percent of the population. Macomb, Monroe, and St. Clair counties are similarly white, with less than 3 percent African-American residents. Detroit is 82 percent African-American. And most of Wayne County’s 200,000 other African-Americans live in inner-ring suburbs.

“The makeup of the SEMCOG executive committee is so tilted toward disinvestments from the central city and older suburbs, toward green field development, it doesn’t even pass the straight-face test,” Barwin asserts.

Barwin argues that if SEMCOG’s executive committee more fairly represented older cities and suburbs, one of the first places that the change would register is in spending for mass transit projects. Fully one-third of the region’s 5 million residents — young people, the elderly, disabled people, and the poor — do not drive. SEMCOG directs just $145 million a year to the region’s two limited bus systems. In contrast the agency is head-over-heels in pursuit of spending more than $1 billion just to widen I-75 from Eight Mile to M-59. Billions more are planned for widening highways across the outer suburbs.

“We have a basic fundamental, discriminatory, structural problem and not much is going to change in how this region develops until it is fixed,” Barwin says.

SEMCOG’s response is that it is doing everything the law tells it to do and is conducting its business fairly and equitably. The agency’s lawyers from the firm of Miller, Canfield, Paddock, and Stone argue that Barwin and his colleagues are simply off-base in suing the agency. SEMCOG’s attorneys argue that if Detroit was so concerned about SEMCOG’s action, why didn’t the city join their case. In fact, last winter the city rejected MOSES’ appeal to recruit Detroit as a co-plaintiff. The city’s research and analysis division studied the issue and concluded that SEMCOG was not violating the state civil rights law.

SEMCOG’s attorneys also assert that the agency has been around for 36 years. Certainly that is enough time for plaintiffs to have filed their case, but they didn’t. So what is so egregious about SEMCOG’s actions now, the lawyers ask, to prompt a legal attack? SEMCOG urged Judge Gillis to dismiss the case. A decision is expected by October.

Meet the plaintiffs

Barwin’s office on the second floor of Ferndale’s City Hall is a tour through the intellectual, political, athletic and managerial influences that make up a proven career in progressive public administration. Gail Sheehy vies for space on the bookshelves with economic texts. John Kennedy is well-represented in the hanging art. There are achievement awards, particularly from the Detroit marathon, which Barwin has run and finished twice. Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm appears in a framed picture. So does conservative former Republican Gov. John Engler, a nod to the partisan balance that any savvy and appointed government leader should take pains to represent.

There’s nothing, in short, to suggest that this quiet, almost cerebral corner of City Hall is the war room, and this tall, slim, blue-eyed administrator the commanding general for the most aggressive attack ever on SEMCOG’s power structure. The battle to reverse southeast Michigan’s engines of growth, directing them inward toward city centers, instead of outward to the countryside, has entered a new field of engagement and it starts here.

“The key in all of what we are trying to do is provide more people with more opportunity,” he says in an interview. “We want to deconcentrate poverty and the only way to do that is to produce more employment opportunities in the city. Rebuild streets. Improve housing. Strengthen public schools. Build rapid transit. Invest public dollars more intelligently.”

Barwin has attracted a battle-tested group of lieutenants who are equally intense about their goals and should make SEMCOG nervous.

Bernstein, a plaintiff and co-counsel, is a 30-year-old lawyer who lives in Birmingham, practices in his father’s firm in Farmington Hills, is an elected member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, and has been blind from birth. Though he can’t see, the issues in the case he is helping to prosecute are plainly evident for people like himself. “Do municipalities have to provide a basic level of transportation for all people?” he asks. “The system that exists does not provide that basic level of services. If you can’t drive, and you can’t afford someone to drive for you, you don’t have a life here. And that, we argue, violates provisions under the civil rights act and is illegal under the law.”

Benjamin, the lead counsel, is a 53-year-old lawyer with Michigan Legal Services who was raised in Rockford, Ill., educated at Ohio Wesleyan University, and ended up in Detroit in 1972 as an organizer at the Merrill Palmer Institute, now a unit of Wayne State University. For more than 30 years Benjamin has been fighting on the side of the little guy, and was co-counsel in the famous eminent domain case to block General Motors from building the plant that ultimately wrecked the Poletown neighborhood. Benjamin and his colleagues lost in the state Supreme Court in 1981. But last month that decision was essentially reversed in another eminent domain case decided by the current conservative state Supreme Court.

The suit against SEMCOG is the biggest case he’s taken up since then. “The issues are pretty clear to me,” Benjamin said in an interview. “The law is very clear. All this may sound complicated, but I’m telling you, the complaint didn’t take long to draft.”

MOSES, a faith-based organization with more than 70 member congregations in the metro Detroit area, is the genuine political muscle on the plaintiff’s team. MOSES is represented in the SEMCOG case by Vicki Kovari, a 49-year-old mother of two who was raised in a white, working-class neighborhood in Detroit, and is now recognized as one of the most talented, tireless and effective community organizers in the country. Among her many achievements was leading Jeremiah Community Development Corporation (a predecessor to MOSES) to initiate and complete Newberry Homes, a $12 million development of 60 low-income, single-family units in southwest Detroit. She founded a church-based community development corporation, the Southwest Alliance For Neighborhoods, that rehabilitated houses in southwest Detroit. She raised more than $1.5 million, completed more than $1 million in development projects in five years, rehabilitated a dozen vacant homes for sale to low-income families, disbursed $300,000 in home repair grants to low-income families, and created the first bilingual home-ownership training program in Detroit, breaking ground in one neighborhood on the first housing construction in 50 years. Kovari’s work, along with other community development groups in southwest Detroit formed in the early 1990s, helped to turn a stagnant Detroit neighborhood, where homes sold for $14,000, into the fastest-growing community in the city, where homes now sell for $75,000 and more.

In 2002, Kovari and MOSES were recognized by the Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award and won a two-year, $130,000 grant for their work.

“I see the issue of public transit as one way to begin to build regional momentum to attack urban sprawl and concentrated poverty and find regional solutions to regional problems,” Kovari says. “I also see transportation as a unifying issue, one that has the potential to bring city and suburban congregations together by benefiting both.”

“This lawsuit is one important piece of the puzzle to improve the city and struggling older suburbs,” Kovari added in an interview. “If we win, it will give us a chance to organize and change how money is distributed. It’s a way for us to reverse the trends of sprawl.”

Can they win?

SEMCOG is designed, in theory, to help leaders come together on important decisions that help the region thrive. In practice it rarely works that way. Delegates sent by local governments to sit on SEMCOG committees are principally loyal to their own constituents at home.

The basic path for deciding where SEMCOG spends money ends with the agency’s five-year regional transportation plan, which lays out all the projects and their priorities. It begins when SEMCOG’s local government members nominate projects. They are discussed and given a priority by the organization’s transportation advisory committee, which makes recommendations to the executive committee. The executive committee ultimately decides when, where and how much to spend. Not surprisingly, federal and independent studies of how regional planning organizations actually behave have shown that the real activity and leadership exert themselves at this stage, as the executive director, staff and a select group of governing board members take command.

In the documents that SEMCOG turned over to the plaintiffs’ team, Kovari discovered that the leadership of the transportation advisory committee has been controlled almost solely by representatives of rural and suburban areas. Except for Greg Pitoniak, the mayor of Taylor, every one of the chairmen of the influential committee over the last decade has represented a rural community or a newer, auto-dependent suburb such as Brighton or Clinton townships. Generally the committee’s vice chairman succeeds the chairman. But when Barwin was the advisory committee’s vice chairman two years ago, he was prevented by SEMCOG’s staff and board from rising to the top slot because they said he wasn’t an elected official.

Such power plays, and the representation of municipal planning organization committees and governing boards, have long been a concern around the country. In some metropolitan planning organizations, according to a Federal Highway Administration study, each local government is given one vote regardless of how many residents the community has. SEMCOG is one of a smaller number of regional planning organizations that has a more complex voting structure nominally weighted according to population.

A 1994 study for the Federal Highway Administration of 74 metropolitan planning organizations, for instance, found that 68 had significant “central city underrepresentation.” According to a 1997 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, “in very few cases is MPO governing board voting power apportioned directly on the basis of population.”

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., and a nationally recognized urban affairs expert, evaluated SEMCOG’s executive committee and compared it to the governing boards of eight other metropolitan planning organizations in urban centers in the Midwest and East, including Cleveland, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Rusk’s study, conducted for MOSES, found that while Detroit was home to 20 percent of the region’s population, it had less than 5 percent of the representatives on SEMCOG’s executive committee. Only Gary, Ind., also a city with more than 80 percent African-American residents, was so severely underrepresented.

“Segregation by race and economic status is caused, in part, by policies that encourage sprawl and urban disinvestments, which in this context means continued white flight,” Rusk concluded. “The decline of the core cities is now repeating itself in many inner ring suburbs that are now facing declining incomes, rising poverty, and slow or no-growth tax bases. It is difficult to believe that the voting structure of SEMCOG had no effect on these numbers. Since Detroit has almost no clout, the policies of road building and encouraging sprawl have been followed in the Detroit metropolitan area to a very extreme degree.”

The lawsuit against SEMCOG is the first of its kind brought against an MPO in state court, a case that could achieve landmark status if the plaintiffs win. Though none acknowledge it, the case is a legal reach even if the issues are so plainly significant. Indeed, other activists have challenged the voting structure of MPOs in federal court under the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection.” In a significant 1973 federal appellate decision involving underrepresentation in an MPO in Hartford, Conn., advocates for voting equity did not prevail.

Whatever the outcome, the suit has already made a difference by helping to answer why there is such apparent inequity in how Detroit is developing. More people than ever are focused on that question. On Sept. 26, MOSES expects 7,000 people to rally for regional public transit — and call for restructuring SEMCOG — at the University of Detroit Mercy’s Calihan Hall. Ultimately, what happens in the courtroom could be a significant chapter in Detroit’s emerging path to recovery. And just like every other step to improve the region’s economy and quality of life, the outcome is crucial to what Detroit becomes in this century.

Keith Schneider is a journalist and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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