In spite of the tumultuous events surrounding Detroit city government, the reality of a newly elected mayor and city council come to fruition on Jan. 1. Next week, the five newly elected council members will participate in an orientation to help acquaint them with city government.
Former and present council members will be joined by their legislative policy division members, who advise them on legal, financial, and land use and zoning matters to provide new members with valuable insight into the seemingly procedure-laden practices of city council and the inner workings of the legislative process.
The orientation is not new. However, this time around the agenda should be. In addition to outlining the process, former council members and incumbents ought to share lessons learned and a vision that will prevent a duplication of the past.
Those lessons learned should include thinking they could change the world. Coming in with new ideas and energy are great, but should be tempered with the reality of what they are working with: a bankrupt city, limited power and authority, a dwindling tax base and growing demand for city services. This eliminates pie-in-the sky promises and a reiteration of campaign rhetoric. We all know they want “safe streets” and “the lights on” but we now need to know what is going to happen to make those things a reality.
They must also share and acknowledge that they cannot do it alone. While all council members are part of the larger body, many tend to present themselves and their colleagues as the sole solution and power brokers for city decisions. They are the legislative body, and should understand what that means and how that works with – and not always against – the executive branch. They are not mini-mayors, nor should they misrepresent themselves as such.
Veteran council members should also admit that things were worse than they thought. Everyone on the outside has the best ideas and the solutions for every problem. However, being inside offers a completely different perspective and set of challenges. Sharing an honest assessment of their realizations won’t be scary or intimidating, but instead should help to prepare the new members for their roles and responsibilities.
The advantage that the newly elected members have is that they should already have a pretty realistic taste of the city’s challenges, given that Detroit is now officially bankrupt. However, rather than become comfortably tucked away in the appearance of being busy, council members should be productive, and aggressively prepare a strategy in the first nine months while their reigns of authority are still being held by emergency manager Kevyn Orr.
With the election of each council body, the city looks forward to yet another genuinely new council, in performance and practice. Yet, by the end we find ourselves disappointed and seemingly at the same point at which we began. This council is young, culturally diverse and can truly be a new face for council, and Detroit.
They don’t need to know how things have always been done (as common cry in city government), because that is the last thing they need to do. After all, history is important as long as it isn’t being repeated.