Getting Detroit district representation right

City of Detroit

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the City Council are on a collision course over charter reforms. Both camps have asked the Charter Revision Commission for more power and control. Much is at stake.

The primary issue, however, is council districts. In 1996, the last time the issue came to a vote, the charter commission offered the electorate expanded district choices that proved unacceptable and were ultimately rejected. To repeat that process would show contempt for the people’s will.

The whole idea of the charter commission exercise is to take account of contemporary needs and practical functions and improve the way government is run. Mayor Bing needs more authority to eliminate programs and services the city can no longer afford to provide. In brief, he’s requested a higher threshold for the contract approval process, elimination of the ombudsman position and curtailing the influence of the council’s re­search and analysis division. The council wants to buttress the power of the mayor to appoint department heads and restrict council members from speaking to them directly about day-today issues such as budgets and service delivery.

The council also has proposed expanding from nine members to 11 with seven elected from districts and four elected city-wide. Bing wants the council to consist of nine members with two elected city-wide. Compromise necessitates rising above the pettiness and small-mindedness of popular passions to reach consensus about what’s in the best interest of the city.

No accountability measure is more important than dividing the city into council districts from which members would be elected from equally apportioned districts, or through a mix of at-large and district elections.  Currently, members of the City Council are elected at-large, which leaves many residents with little representation over what happens in their communities. Indeed, the need for charter reform is inspired by voters’ frustration with feeling they either must accept unreliable city services at unreasonable prices or leave the city altogether.

Although the idea received overwhelmingly support by 70 percent of the electorate, members of the current council aren’t too excited about running in districts. Some claim a district election system would shift emphasis from the larger concerns of the city to parochial interests. Many fear that the power of the mayor could actually increase with the ability to target for defeat detractors elected from wards. There’s an argument to be made that under the existing strong mayoral form of government, the council ought to have some way to insure service delivery in their respective districts to make the concept meaningful.

While these are potent considerations, the prospect of voters having an identifiable council member outweighs the potential for politically inspired mischief. Districts would allow voters to make better-informed choices and penalize irresponsible behavior by incumbents. Residents in destitute areas – where no current councilperson lives — would be able to hold an individual accountable for getting the garbage picked up and cops, EMS personnel and firefighters to show up for emergencies.

The City Council’s effort to expand their number to 11 is a protectionist ploy. It is a blatant attempt to thwart the Charter Commission’s voter-mandated task of revising the charter for maximum public benefit. It makes even less sense considering Detroit continues to experience population loss.

In the end, Charter Commission compliance with the City Council recommendation will effectively kill any real opportunity for a sensible, voter-approved council district proposal and, therefore, meaningful reform.

1 thought on “Getting Detroit district representation right

  1. I think, on the surface, electing council members by district is a good idea, but as with any change, there are risks/rewards.

    Pity the district stuck with a councilperson who’s filled more with inertia than diligence, for example. Of course, those types might find themselves voted out of office, but you never know.

    Also, I’d be careful about how the districts were gerrymandered, so that no district has any advantage in clout or importance than another. Finally, there would be a learning curve, as residents would have to be reminded to call “their” councilperson, which they’ve never had to do before.

    There’s no question that a shrinking city like Detroit does NOT need 11 council members! Nine seems about right.

    Look no further than 300 miles west to see the pros and cons of Chicago’s ward system, which as you know has been fertile ground for corruption.

    Not that Detroit hasn’t had its share of corruption lately, I know. But most of that has come from the mayor’s office.

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