Week 39 of the Occupation
By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Detroit begins the new year with a new mayor and city council. For the first time in a century, this council is made up of people who represent seven districts in the city, along with two at-large members. This is the result of extensive citywide discussions establishing political process to reflect the needs of neighborhoods, rather than only the downtown core.
Districts rooted in neighborhoods were envisioned as a way to counter the corporate-foundation elite who could manipulate council members without a sense of constituency. The touchstone for decisions in the new charter is our “commitment to the development and welfare of our youth, our most precious resource.” Not corporate interests.
The charter preamble affirms the purpose of government is “instituting programs, services and activities addressing the needs of our community; fostering an environment and government structure whereby sound public policy objectives and decisions reflect citizen participation and collective desires; pledging that all our officials, elected and appointed, will be held accountable to fulfill the intent of this charter and hold sacred the public trust.”
The outgoing council has violated the charter. Its spirit and practices have been completely shredded by the actions of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. But the new council, created under its mandate, has the opportunity to begin their historic term of office by reaffirming it.
Establishing the charter as our central governing process should include following Article 9, Chapter 1: Community Advisory Councils (CAC). The commentary in this section of the charter explains that such councils are considered “an effective means to achieve community objectives and improve the overall condition of a city.” Perhaps the most critical aspect of this mechanism is the section that mandates “consultation” between the representative and the members of the CAC on issues relating exclusively to the district. Further, there is a mandate for public meetings, ensuring a broader perspective to inform the thinking of council members.
The experience of the last few years demonstrates how critical it is for council members to have systematic, deep and continuing relationships with people in their communities. Without these relationships, council members lose a sense of reality and begin to believe the narrative fostered by mainstream media in service to corporate-foundation interests.
A vivid example of this was the divided vote by the last council on Hantz Farms/Woodlands. After years of citizen questions, a divided city council voted to give a large tract of land on the east side to a single individual at bargain basement prices. They made this decision in spite of overwhelming opposition, including a town meeting where over a thousand people came to express their concerns. Councilman Spivey, who lived closest to the area and voted against the deal, was given no special authority because of his community relationship to place. This is simply wrong.
The new charter holds the possibility of countering this kind of abuse of the will of the people who will be most directly affected by council decisions.
Further, it is important that we establish processes of citizen engagement that are outside of the corporate-foundation reach. Community councils, public meetings, town halls and open opportunities for citizens to speak directly to council are essential to counter balance the extraordinary power of money in reshaping Detroit.
Over the last few years, powerful non-profits have emerged, presenting themselves as the voice of citizens as they plead for corporate-foundations funds. We have learned that such relationships result in non-profit organizations, purporting to represent communities, saying what funders want to hear.
This kind of sham engagement was the hallmark of Detroit Works/Detroit Future City, recognized as the result of a poisonous process. Sham community voices have been used to blunt criticism of everything from the destruction of schools to the expansion of downtown development.
At a time when neither the mayor nor council has legal power, they have a unique opportunity to claim moral authority. Such a process begins with upholding the values already put forward through broadly based citizen action.