For all of the hopefuls running for a seat at the Detroit city council table this year, Charles Pugh has a realistic message: that a spot on the council isn’t all it's cracked up to be.
The current city council president announced last week that he would not seek re-election or run for mayor and that he plans to return to his first passion: broadcast journalism.
“The reality is I ran for council so that I could run for mayor. I was going to do the Barack Obama,” Pugh told WDET 101.9 FM’s Craig Fahle Tuesday. But with three years of politics under his belt, the difference between his perception of the council’s job and the reality was like “night and day”.
“I’m just like most Detroiters in thinking the council has way more power than it really does,” Pugh said in the WDET interview. “I’m thinking that I was goanna be able to get the lights back on and get the grass cut on time … but that’s not their job. That’s not what they do.“
Pugh said the council’s power is more influential than direct and he is discouraged by the inability to make everyday decisions. “We can raise a bunch of noise at the council table but honestly if the Mayor’s not on board that’s, in effect, what it is.”
He called the council’s criticism of city functions “official complaining” adding that the only thing the council has direct power over are approving deals and making a spring budget for the year.
“Most of the impact you have is the budget that you set in the spring and come fall you have no say about the daily management and it’s frustrating because you get blamed,” he said.
This year, council contenders will be running by district, a change from four years ago when Pugh was on the ballot.
The push for council by districts was fueled by the idea that by assigning a council member to various sections of the city there would be more accountability for service delivery and overall positive action. But Pugh disputes that idea.
“People will have an even greater expectation that their district council person will have the ability to do more than we can do as all at large and they don’t. They won’t be able to do one more doggone thing than we can do right now. I think that’s unfortunate.”
He noted that the addition of an elected citizen advisory council in each district could help a councilperson and residents fight together for change. But as neither an executive nor an administrator, council members are not who you turn to with an everyday issue. For future council people debuting on the political scene, Push says you need to be tough.
“I learned that it requires a rhinoceros skin to do this job and I have the skin of a wet tissue paper—I have been sensitive all my life that is one of my negatives and one of my positives,” Pugh told Fahle. “This politically elected position is definitely for someone who can take darts and arrows and hot shots from all over the place and keep it moving.”
Pugh said a council member’s experience depends on what kind of mayor is in office.
His relationship with mayor Bing has not always been a smooth one.
“We expected more from a Republican businessman who was a suburbanite,” Pugh said of Bing. “We were expecting a great deal in terms of coming in with a game plan to fix things and we just were hugely disappointed that we didn’t get that.”