Opinion: Detroit needs a strong city council

Back in 2010, the Detroit City Council proposed to cut an additional $31.8 million from the Mayor’s proposed $3.1 billion city budget. Shortly afterwards, business leaders, community leaders and young professionals crowded into a meeting to hear remarks about the city’s systemic budget issues and chronic restructuring process.

The remarks opened with "we're on the right path" and "we’re cutting to the bone" and "we got the right team in place." The crowd nodded in approval. The remarks continued with few surprises given Detroit’s fiscal issues. Then the bomb dropped: "…and how dare council propose additional cuts. They don’t know what they’re doing."  

The crowd nodded in approval.

Wait a minute: after listing all the dire straits of Detroit’s finances, the new, fiscally minded council was being lambasted for proposing additional cuts?  

Shooting ourselves in the foot

We’ve made good sport of trashing city council. From labeling them the rather offensive "clownsil" to scapegoating council for every frustration, misgiving or regret with city living, we have painted an inaccurate view of council and its role.  

This disposition has some serious negative consequences. Knee-jerk discounting of council closes off reasonable policy debates. Whether it be ignoring council’s call for much needed additional budget cuts or automatically viewing the body’s review function as regressive red tape, we undermine the importance of a branch that is, by charter, co-equal to the mayor and, more importantly, is the direct voice of the people.  

The net result is we have communities being severely disenfranchised during regular council meetings. Worse still, good people with strong community leadership credentials are scared off from running as candidates. Instead of focusing on solutions, antics dominate the newsrooms, and common sense policy is left for the meeting minutes. It’s a vicious cycle that must stop.

Council by districts: setting a new tone

We can re-set this cycle in 2013, and implementation of Detroit’s new council by districts presents the historic opportunity to do just that.

In a town clamoring to get its "democracy back," nothing is more critical to the long-term governance of Detroit than mobilizing in support of community-based leaders that will meaningfully represent their districts while competently navigating Detroit’s complex array of city-wide challenges. 

Districts will allow neighborhood organizations, block clubs, and local residents a direct line to leaders who can focus on local challenges as an advocate, and serve as key bridge builders between city government and the leadership already embedded in our neighborhoods. It will be a tough role: demanding the best public servants we can find, and asking them not to point fingers but build coalitions; not to be divisive but inclusive; to focus exclusively on results for Detroit and solutions for the future. 

Too many have taken the short-term view that Council is irrelevant with an emergency manager. For now, an EFM is here for 16 more months, but your representative will be in office through 2017. 

More importantly, remember that no one alone will solve the urgent demands our city requires. Detroit City Council is the legislative body representing the interests of citizens; and council by districts presents a unique opportunity to address voter disenfranchisement through the simple solution of elevating neighborhood empowerment and influence into the governing process.

What you can do

We believe Detroit residents should focus on the council by district races very closely this summer and fall. Get to know the candidates. Be sure to vote.

We all need to understand the profound role council will take as its members aim to begin the urgent task of forging both district-based and city-wide solutions to Detroit’s myriad challenges -- challenges far too immense for residents to passively stand by in this historic election.

We think it is time to declare a new era in Detroit City Hall.  

Start by supporting the best candidate to represent your district. He or she will be your most important ally for the next four years.

Matthew Clayson and Bradford Frost are both steering team members of Declare Detroit.
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