Breaking down city hall's bureaucracy at Open City's season finale

Most people dread a trip to city hall. They imagine being met by indifferent employees, long lines, outdated technology, and unclear information.

But the panelists at the final Open City event of the season, "Rock the Red Tape: Tips for Navigating City Hall," did their best to reassure those in attendance that these impressions are either outdated or will soon require updating.

Open City is presented by D:Hive in partnership with Detroit Creative Corridor Center and Model D. The panel consisted of:Moderator Alexis Wiley, director of community outreach for the city of Detroit, started the discussion by asking the panel's only representative of the business community, Kirsten Ussery, where people should start when gathering the necessary documents and permits for their business.

Kirsten said that, fortunately, "There's a clear starting point." A business owner should head for the Business License Center at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. "They'll give you a list of all departments you need to engage to get permits and everything else."

Brian Ellison admitted that often at city hall "there's confusion on basic questions." But he and others are working hard to streamline the permitting and licensing processes to "turn city hall into a one-stop shop."

Wiley asked Ellison about specific changes that the Business and Development Services department is working on.

"We're currently trying to resolve the backlog," Ellison said. They hope to achieve this by merging departments, expanding access to information, and improving the city's use of technology. "The most effective municipalities have an efficiently run web component."

Photo by Andy Kopietz

Kirk Mayes praised Ellison's contributions, saying, "Brian is one of our city's experts in understanding the multidisciplinary process and everything that touches a business. Hopefully soon that position will integrate itself within city hall and become automated."

One major issue for business owners is finding out precisely how much time and money it will cost for a permit or to bring a building up to code.

"After I found out which departments I needed to engage, I still didn’t know the fees involved," Ussery said. "As a business owner, it’s helpful when planning to know what the costs are going to be. That was very frustrating. The departments didn’t seem to always be working together."

Ellison again promised reform. "We need to get better at being clear up front," he said. "If you tell me this will cost $1,000 and take six months, I may not like it but at least I know."

Later in the discussion he returned to this theme. "The charge of my office is to ensure transparent, open access to information. You say 'I want to do X' and you can have the same information as anyone else to complete it. The sign of a broken system is when you don’t know what to do but know someone at the lever of power. You shouldn’t need a champion in city hall."

Brian Hurtienne reminded the audience that city hall isn't and shouldn't be equipped to handle everything -- there are outside resources a business owner can appeal to for help.

"Talk to businesses and neighborhood leaders in the neighborhood you want to move into," he said. "And please use the CDCs (Community Development Corporations)...We'll help you out."

The panel concluded on an optimistic note. Navigating city hall will improve drastically in the future, but the present isn't as terrible as it's made out to be.

"I heard the same rumors as everyone else about how difficult [city hall] would be," Ussery said. "But I was surprised with how pleasant it was. The people were positive."

Hurtienne concurred. "When you go to city hall, you have to have the right attitude," he said. "You can’t be defeatist. Everyone there wants to help you."

"It’s a new day in the city of Detroit," Mayes said. "Our mayor is thinking about you and small business owners."

Things are already changing at city hall. Earlier in the discussion, Wiley asked the panel who a business owner should call if they feel confused or frustrated. Ellison asked the audience, "You guys got a pen?" After a silent pause he stressed, "I'm not being facetious." He then told everyone his cell phone number.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer and improv comedian.
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.