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Week Three of the Occupation: Bottom Lines

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

This week, Detroit’s emergency manager (EM) firmed up the foundation of his operation. After reinstating the pay of elected City Council members, the EM announced the Council is welcome to meet, but he has the final say. All decisions are his alone. A few days later, a consulting firm recommended that the City Council be reduced to part time and cut its staff.

The consulting firm of Conway Mackenzie of Birmingham was paid $4.2 million for its recommendation that would reduce the counsel staff from 115 to 37 and “save” the city $7.4 million in expenses. We the citizens are no doubt to assume that a part-time Council with virtually no staff will be effective in answering our concerns about lighting, public safety and general civic business. After all, citizens have been assured the EM will make sure city services improve.

This is absurd. The point of all of this was for the EM to provide political cover for difficult decisions and protection from the federal lawsuit pointing out the unconstitutionality of this whole scheme. But the EM also wanted to make clear he is the one paying the bills, so he is in charge. The real bottom line is that the governor and his cronies control the assets and revenues of the city of Detroit.

In this moment, the decision by the Sierra Club of Michigan, Detroit Chapter, to release its State of the Environment Report is welcome. It is a well-researched, thoughtful document, raising important questions about ecological justice and environmental policies. At a press conference in front of the Detroit Works Project/Detroit Future City (DWP), Environmental Justice Program Director Rhonda Anderson said simply, “We have in the city of Detroit, in the area of 48217 (ZIP Code), River Rouge and Ecorse, the most polluted areas in the state of Michigan.”

As significant as the data in the report is, the context given by the Sierra Club for conducting it is crucial. The Sierra Club raises the question of public integrity. It is offering a clear standard of accountability on the part of nonprofit organizations in our city.

In the opening paragraph of the report, they acknowledge that the DWP asked the Sierra Club to collaborate on an Environmental Report. After becoming engaged in the process, the Sierra Club determined three important things. First, DWP lacked “genuine community direction and protections.” Second, their “membership includes individuals and organizations that perpetuate environmental injustices,” and, third, DWP was faced with a significant “conflict of interest.”

While applauding the blue and green emphasis within the strategic framework, the Sierra Club pinpoints the core decision of the DWP, to channel resources to some “target areas of the city, while neglecting others, remains intact and fundamentally contradicts the principles of environmental justice.”

They also conclude that the DWP plan “offers nothing toward alleviating existing environmental justice hazards” and that the “continued push of privatization of public lands and resources with respect to land use, air and water quality is also not addressed and remains a concern.”

The clear, forceful introduction of these principles into public debate is essential. The report calls for “complete and transparent independence from any entities significantly contributing to environmental hazards in the city” and argues that this “is critical if local environmental groups intend to advocate on behalf of the general public.”

The Sierra Club’s bold, clear action is part of the growing effort by Detroiters to not only carve out a new political space but also to clarify the values and responsibilities of all those who claim to speak on behalf of the people.

Contact Shea Howell at howell@oakland.edu.

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