None of the above

City of Detroit

The 2013 Detroit city election primary marathon is about to get underway. A slew of potential candidates will pick up nominating petition for mayor.  Hundreds could vie for the nine City Council seats — seven elected from districts and two at-large.

It’s not surprising that the field promises to be crowded given the growing dissatisfaction with the disgraceful performance of the current crop of elected officials.  The state of affairs is so bad that it deserves a ballot designation that stimulates – at least for most incumbents — “none of the above.”

Typically incumbents have a four-year affliction of anxiety about their reelection prospects. The lead-up to past elections historically motivated politicians to take actions to appease potential voters. Detroiters became the beneficiaries of the quadrennial renewal of vitality. But soon after basking in the afterglow of this temporary attention, voters sank back into complacency. The kind of chaos that exists today quickly became the norm, even after a seemingly gifted mayor and slate of council newcomers assumed office.

Over the last four years, the new City Council yielded to the old ways and established a less than glowing record of setting public policy priorities or achieving financial objectives. On the Belle Isle deal turned debacle, the council’s conduct is particularly disqualifying.  Councilpersons James Tate, Saunteel Jenkins and Gary Brown were the only ones to vote to move forward with the rescue plan proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The latest annual audit pegs the city’s accumulated general-fund deficit at nearly $327 million, $130 million more than the shortfall the city reported for the 2010-11 fiscal year. But despite a consent agreement with the state, and more than halfway into the fiscal year, the mayor and council continue to drag their feet on ending the spending addiction, daring the governor to send the city into bankruptcy.

Residents are gunned down in their homes or on the street and the city is constantly aflame. However, the council more closely resembles potted plants than pro-active responders to the crises. Yet its members continue to enjoy their power, perks and privileges.

Long-suffering Detroiters who don’t vote with their feet, routinely complain that too often their choice is between the lesser of the evils. Having “none of the above” on the ballot could be a “safety valve” by which elections could be nullified if voters don’t think any of the competing candidates are deserving.

The door would open for “non-traditional” candidates with fresh ideas to run. The “power of incumbency” would be less of a potent force with do-nothing politicians who might have to actually check the pulse of voters on critical issues to get elected.

If “none of the above” emerged victorious, a new election would be held. Of course, rescheduling elections until voters settled on a suitable candidate(s) would be an additional cost. But based on the city’s sorry political history, the occasional added expense might be worthwhile if it led to better candidates, better campaigns and better results.

I can already hear the chorus of dissent from those who see “none of the above” as draconian. Elections, the argument goes, are about choosing someone to govern you,  not about registering a protest. And voters already have the right to show their discontent by staying home. Increasingly, though, the pool of desirable and qualified candidates is shrinking. And apathy already rules the political roost

It remains to be seen whether any of the mayoral or council challengers will prove to be worthy. But while there is hope for good public policy and strong leadership in the stirring of political competition, it’s not automatic. The active interest and participation of voters are essential.

If “none of the above” isn’t designated — or practiced — come November,  this much we can count on: Detroiters will get no more or no less than they deserve from the choices they make.

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