Once upon a time, Detroit had a population of over a million and it was still governed by nine council members at the time. Today the city has shrunk with population loss and dwindling services and yet it is still governed by the same number of council members it had then.
In an age where the city’s finances are in the red as it struggles to provide basics such as Emergency Medical Services (EMS), police and fire protection, garbage pickup and tearing down abandoned buildings, its biggest civic institution, the Detroit City Council, is asking for an expansion to 11 members.
In simple terms, the meager resources of the city cannot tolerate an expanded council at a time when Detroit is one of the few cities in the nation with a full-time legislative branch of government.
The conversation should be the other way around: shrink the city council, not expand it. A branch of government whose members get paid well — approximately $80,000 — and enjoy the luxury of a car, an annual budget in the hundreds of thousands plus other perks we may not be aware of.
Of course, I can hear the cry of some council members that their latest move as a body is to ensure diversity on the council.
Well noted. But while diversity is always a compelling matter as the U.S. Supreme Court stated in the University of Michigan affirmative action battle, there are many ways to address diversity on the council aside from increasing the number of council members.
Council by districts will certainly usher in some diversity on the council because this same body will be charged with drawing the district lines. They have the opportunity to address it then.
The Detroit City Council recommendation to the Detroit Charter Commission to have seven district members and four at large members is not the right kind of proposal for a city looking to curtail spending with the limited resources it has.
The logic behind such a proposal that is deservingly receiving negative reception from most quarters — including Mayor Bing — is that the more members you have on council, the better it is for an effectively functioning local government.
Recent history betrays this logic and it is laughable, especially for the new council members who ran on the mantra of change resulting from the dismal era of the old council. To suggest that a larger governing system will ensure representation of all is not necessarily a smart way of convincing people to rally behind such a strange and unexpected plan. Democracy’s finest hour is when the people decide, not the political institution that ultimately depends on the will of the people.
The council cannot uphold itself as a civic institution to represent the wishes and aspirations of Detroit.
We are dealing with an ever-evolving council whose actions sometimes indicate that it is going through the rigmarole of political maturation and the complexity that comes with it as it relates to good governance.
Detroit, like most cities, is cash strapped. One would expect the council to demonstrate some sense of financial consciousness within the body politic by suggesting shrinking the legislative body.
Instead the council is asking taxpayers to spend more money on a bigger council when the current one is struggling to define its own democratic identity due in large part to inadequate services being provided to taxpayers.
There is no gain without pain, as the old adage goes. That means if Detroit is going to move forward, it cannot afford the kind of political luxury it once bestowed on members of its biggest political institution.
We would all expect that the council would understand what “cutback” means in a tough economy where families are cutting back on what they are spending during his holiday season.
Some members of the council would say that democracy requires all voices to be heard and that entertaining the idea of an expanded legislative arm does not necessarily mean implementing it.
I get that idea, council members.
But what if you were running your own company in a cash strapped financial climate and someone suggest that you should add more staff to better service your customers when the funds are not there in the first place. What would you do? Borrow more money and get deeper into debt or would you as restructure your company and eliminate non-essential positions and services?
Well, since running your own company would mean hitting your pocket book each time there is an increase in staff, I believe that the idea of staff expansion would be tossed out.
Therefore, the issue of council expansion is a matter for voters to decide because it is their pocketbooks that will be bleeding if such a plan were to be implemented.
There are many ways to restructure and assure residents and businesses a functionally right local government other than making an already large institution larger still.
What results have the council yielded since it’s been in office is something that carries different meaning to different voters. The Detroit City Council with all of its good intentions may be headed the wrong way in this instance. The fact that the council would even make this recommendation speaks volumes about where it is an institution.
Is this power grab for someone to keep his/her job when the next election comes around?
Does this move truly have the support of all the council members or is there a deal behind this proposal?
What is the democratic ingredient for this proposal when history is replete with instances where council has not always stepped up to accountability, probity and transparency?
Is this a preemptive strike by the council to guard against the implications of when a district system goes into effect?
Corruption, failing in its fiduciary duties, not enough checks and balances, non-responsiveness to constituent complaints have all been the hallmarks of the council in recent years. With these things represented in the previous city council, voters went to the polls and almost started out with a clean slate.
Both the new members of the council and ones that were retained by voters cannot plead ignorance of why they have been elected. They very well know, like all of us, that they sailed into office on the wind of change because people were fed up with questionable goings-on..
People are still waiting on a Detroit City Council report card. That should come before suggesting expanding the political body that will be bankrolled by taxpayers.
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