Detroiters pay price for their lack of diligence

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Sun, 04/21/2013 - 1:52pm
Karen Dumas talks about what was, but doesn’t offer lessons or suggest how and why to change it. She wants people to use their votes wisely, but she doesn’t describe how. If the previous elected officials did so much harm why doesn’t she describe ways voters can select good candidates? She could share questions or criteria she uses when voting. I agree with what that Karen Dumas says and feels. I have seen how things have been squandered when people lose focus. Detroit like much of the State had shifted into an ‘I want’ from ‘what is needed’ mind set. Detroit was bigger, things seemed robust without risk, and politicians in Detroit, Lansing, Washington facilitated that shift for it benefited them and made it easier to get into power. I encourage Ms. Dumas to talk about the roles of the City, all cities; about public safety (not personal safety) such as fire and police services, about order of law such as zoning and building standards, infrastructure such as roads, accountability and how to do that. When a city or state or schools are in such dire straits they need to start by establishing and communicating what their purpose is, how their community will hold them accountable, they need to describe specifically what the results they will provide (how to measure if they are doing that), and they need to eliminate, transfer, or cooperate for those services they can’t do best with those doing it better, and they need to eliminate the things they give to individual people should be doing for themselves. If a parent can’t afford basic needs then they shouldn’t be giving money to a single child while the house for all the family is falling apart. The voters of Detroit, of all cities, need to value their vote and use it wisely, but people like Karen Dumas need to offer the tools people can use to make those wiser votes.
Jack McHugh
Mon, 04/22/2013 - 11:26am
"...a glaring example of what happens when citizen engagement and voter accountability are passive..." Indeed, but that passivity is largely a result, not a cause in itself. Specifically, it's a common product of one-party political systems. The American South for much of the 20th Century was an example. With no opposition party elections become not about real issues but personal differences between candidates, or pork, or anything except changing the often corrupt political status quo. Lack of citizen engagement is a rational response to such a system. Sometimes I have fantasies of something like a new Democratic Reform Party fielding candidates who could effectively challenge the inbred political machines and government employee unions that run most large cities.
Mark Grebner
Mon, 04/22/2013 - 3:15pm
I don't think the general point is entirely true. In 2005, I'm pretty sure Detroit voters deliberately CHOSE Kwame Kilpatrick over Freman Hendrix, in full awareness that Kwame was a corrupt thug, and Freman was planning to try to end the parties and put everybody to work rebuilding. All the polls reported the voters said they supported Freman. The secret ballot had a completely different tally.
Mon, 04/22/2013 - 6:55pm
The problem is, many of us see voting as a 'right', moreso than what it really is and that is a 'privilege!' Just like driving. Everyone has a 'right' to drive. But that can be overruled when a person gives evidence that they are incapable of driving safely, and present a danger to themselves and others. With a functional illiteracy rate of slightly over 50 percent, Detroit has proven, it is incapable of making decisions, that not only help it, but, the state. The state is the landlord, and Detroiters are the tenants. If the tenants, keep doing things that destroy the house [Detroit], then the landlord has to step in. It is just that simple.
Edwin Lord
Sun, 04/28/2013 - 8:27am
For Detroit to have any type of futre, a plan has to be devised in obtaning addiitional tax revenue. Six million for reveue collection, is not a substantial amount for the size of popultation. Where was the tax policy for the citizens?