Often the conversation about districts centers on how powerful the council members will be in relation to the mayor, and not how powerful the constituents will be in relation to council.
Many of the candidates running for Charter Revision Commission propose a “hybrid” district system for electing candidates to council. On the campaign trail, it means they can profess support for “districts.” How supportive are they?
When Detroiters talk about electing “council by district,” preserving the current system isn’t usually a top priority. After the last 18 months, most of us are looking for meaningful change. Candidates for Charter Commission favor a range of district proposals, and some hybrids do make sense.
The League of Women Voter’s proposal of seven districts and two at-large, where the president and president pro tem are elected city-wide, is worth considering. There are also the all-district proposals that a few candidates are talking about, where we convert our nine at-large seats to nine or more districts.
Then there is the 4/5ths compromise. A fraction in front of the word “compromise” is never good. A number of candidates talk about four at-large seats and five districts (or worse, the 5/4ths compromise). In many ways that is the least change possible (three mega-districts would start to sound ridiculous). Who benefits from a half measure? When you compromise to keep half the status quo intact, what is traded away is our political power.
Let’s put this in perspective: the smaller the population of a district, the fewer people you have to compete with to get your voice heard. If there are 10,000 people in a district, you are 1 in 10,000. Today, every citizen in the city of Detroit has to share each council member with 900,000 other Detroiters. In Detroit, your voice is 1 in 900,000. An individual Detroiter has less political power than any resident of any other major city in this country.
If you lived in Los Angeles or Houston, your voice would be 3.5 times more significant. In New York, your voice would be 5.5 times more significant to your councilperson. The list goes on. We are the least influential citizens of any major city in the country. By far.
The question of districts is critical to the future of Detroit. Luckily, it’s early in the process. Many of the Charter Commission candidates imagine significant public input. When you meet one, if he or she wants districts, ask how many districts that candidate would like to see. Get a sense of what they propose to do to your political power.
If this is to be a new era in Detroit we need to be new voters. We need to be vigilant and thoughtful, and use our power to make sure we never let the city get out of control again. When you go to the polls and consider the candidates for Charter Revision Commission, keep in mind that with nine districts, you are 1 in 100,000, with seven you are 1 in 130,000, and so on. More districts mean individual voices become more powerful; you and your neighbors have more pull.
Charter Commission candidates are considering your power right now. Now is the time to consider theirs.
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