Detroit's blank slate means new reality for council

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.

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John S. Porter
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 9:25am
Nice to have a list of what elected people must and must not do. Rather than holding these new people accountable to some obscure criteria based on historic experience, it would be nice if outsiders held themselves accountable for how can they help. An inventory of resources available for the new Detroit would be nice. I would like to see the new city council make a list of things that they want from the host State and neighbors. Right now they are accountable for nothing because they have no power. The questions that should be asked has to do with what form of charter the new Detroit will have. What powers the executive vs legislative people should have, and what can we do set them up for good governance in the future -- when the handcuffs come off. Detroit won't always be a ward of the State. This is a unique opportunity for visioning a new governing structure, a structure that most likely will include close cooperation and operating agreements with neighboring communities. The root problem in Detroit lies in State law and local political fragmentation, in my opinion. The new City council members should not be expected to find solutions for those problems by themselves.
Mon, 12/09/2013 - 10:46am
The Council must also recognize they have some power while Orr is still here. A good example is Belle Isle. The proposed state lease of the Isle was objected to by the city council and`as a result the decision was pushed up to the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board. The loan board is then required to choose between the two proposals. The Council's proposal did not make economic sense so the loan board had no choice but select what Orr offered. The City Council's proposal took the best of everything from Orr and reduced the term from 30 years to 10 years. This destroyed the economics of the deal from the state's perspective. The council also requested that the State's commitment to make between $10-$20 million in improvements be made part of the lease. This was a good idea but the loan board does not have the authority to make any changes to what is proposed. In this case they rightly selected Orr's proposal. Here are two other proposals I hope the Council can support. One hast to do with increasing the population of the city by utilizing an advantage that no other city in the suburbs has The other is to offer a free college education to graduates from Detroit high schools