The mayor of Detroit and the City Council are engaged in an expensive legal battle over how much or how little face time each should get on cable television. Aside from the conspicuous waste of taxpayer dollars, the dispute reveals the absence of prime time political talent in the city.
A lawsuit filed by Mayor Dave Bing’s office claims the council illegally seized control of the Cable Commission. Bing wants to limit the broadcast of daily council meetings on public-access channels to Tuesdays and Thursdays and replace them with more general interest programs about the city.
The council wants live coverage of their meetings plus mind-numbing reruns of their sessions, characterized by Councilwoman JoAnn Watson as “a fundamental principle of government” because they provide an insight to the workings of government.
Anyone who has watched one of these episodes would find that assertion laughable. What the broadcasts really show is how ineffective and self-absorbed the council is.
The fight for cable TV rights come amidst disturbing reports about out-of-control city deficiencies. Last week, a published report revealed the council’s $13 million bloated budget eats up a larger share of the city’s annual revenue than 14 other major cities. Spending on the nine members and paid staffers even exceeds salaries paid in comparable positions in New York, a city about 10 times larger that Detroit.
Viewers of the government access channel might see the council aimlessly diddling with the 50,000-plus abandoned, foreclosed and off- the-tax rolls parcels that were revealed in a second damning report. Featured is a lot of bluster and self-serving pronouncements in which members can be seen subsidizing failure instead of dispensing incentives that encourage risk-takers to put their energy, ideas and venture capital to work.
The newly elected members who took office a year ago, once thought to play starring roles, have turned out to be bit players on a major stage. Despite years of council cable overexposure, Detroit remains in a terminal state.
It’s no mystery why members of the council are in this fight. Cable is of immense importance considering that most modern electoral political campaigns are played out in the media. Government access television offers council members free advertisement and unprecedented exposure that increases the power of their incumbency.
Having the ability to be seen, virtually at will, establishes a cycle in which the sitting councilperson obtains unbeatable name recognition and the ease of raising funds for election campaigns. The advantages of mass exposure, efficient fund-raising and free media can essentially repel any opposition or challenge. Should voters approve a council-by-district charter amendment, the cable show takes on added significance since Detroiters are inclined to vote for the “devil they know.”
Conversely, the city’s precipitous population decline could mean audiences tuning into the council’s dog-and pony cable show are already finding it to be an embarassing farce.
Mayor Bing’s motives for opting for a legal fight are no less suspect. Does he want to show Detroiters what a great job he’s doing? Would he start with the declining tax base and property values, high unemployment, public safety issues, inferior public transportation or the antiquated public lighting facility? Or does his “I’m a Believer” campaign need another outlet?
The severity of conditions in the city tells us that one of the great needs is leadership less attuned to self-aggrandizement and more focused on revitalization and recovery. In the public interest, the Bing administration and the council should rise above the self-centered grandstanding and divorce themselves from this insulting litigation.