The city of Detroit has become a glaring example of what happens when citizen engagement and voter accountability are passive, at best. Historically low voter turnout, election – and re-election – based on name recognition and not holding those elected officials accountable has gotten us all in trouble, financial and otherwise.
An ever-declining population, high crime, less than desirable city services and an ineffective city government are the catch phrases synonymous with Detroit’s troubles. With Gov. Rick Snyder declaring the city in a state of financial emergency and appointing an emergency manager, add to those complaints that the democratic process has been circumvented or ignored. And it has.
But who’s to blame?
There is no question that the right to vote and the democratic process are worth fighting for. A voice, a vote, the right to be heard – these are fundamental to what it means to be American. But this is an example of what happens when the right to vote becomes nothing more than an unused asset or reminder of what used to be, like the dress from your high school prom: pretty, nice to look at and remember, but never to be worn again.
Having a right without exercising the attendant responsibility equates to failure. Allowing those elected or charged with managing the city and its finances to gloss over an otherwise glaring reality has compromised who and where we are. The complaint that democracy has been compromised and rights stolen should be, instead, that we gave them away.
Kevyn Orr’s appointment as emergency manager has brought a divided response: support from the business community, who long for a resolution to the challenges and perception impeding Detroit’s turnaround, but opposition from a community who feels he was forced upon them.
Orr comes with unmatched power to make long-desired -- but highly opposed -- changes to the city’s operations, union contracts and legacy debts. He can wipe out employees and departments, and sell assets the city has held on to but not cared for; his every move should be a reminder of what could have been done, but wasn’t.
When the opportunity to elect new council members presented itself, voters chose five new members, but returned four to office. Work-force reductions were met with marches and accusations of union busting, without recognizing that the pot from which they were paid was dry. Opportunities to change the status quo for collecting and generating revenue were painted as ways of ignoring the economically challenged, overlooking that the city of Detroit also fits that bill.
The hand of the city has been slapped. For ignoring, covering up and pretending the problems didn’t exist, we all will now pay a price. Whether Orr makes structural changes, a real difference and then returns the reins to voters who will both promise and perform responsibly the next time around, or if he stays much longer than the anticipated 18 months holding voters and their vote at bay, will ultimately determine if that cost will be viewed as a penalty for negligence -- or an investment in an elusive, but much desired, brighter future for Detroit.