Webchat: Are City Council Districts the Answer for Detroit?

On Tuesday, August 24, I particpated in a web chat discussion Detroit’s council districts with the Detroit Free Press. If you missed it, here is an edited version of the conversation. (For the original chat, click on this link.)

Here were the panelists for the chat:

Jewel Gopwani, assistant editor for community engagement at the Detroit Free Press.

Vince Keenan, executive director of Publius.org, a Detroit-based non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting community and civic participation, voter education and election reform. Vince was a key member of the group of Detroiters that lead the successful petition effort to adopt Council by Districts in 2009.

 Rochelle Riley, a columnist at the Detroit Free Press who writes passionately about children, education and city government. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Riley writes two to four times a week on local, state and national issues.

This is just the beginning of many conversations. To have your say, join in the town hall meeting on Detroit’s future districts Thursday, Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. at Second Ebenezer Church, 14601 Dequindre Rd., Detroit. You can rsvp for the town hall by emailing rsvp@freepress.com or calling 313-222-6617.

Jewel Gopwani: Hello! Thanks for joining us for a chat about drawing Detroit’s council districts. Let’s welcome Kurt Metzger, Vince Keenan and Rochelle Riley to our chat.  

Kurt Metzger: Great to be part of what I hope is just the beginning of a true citywide discussion.

Vince Keenan: Thanks for having me.

Rochelle Riley: Riley: I’m so looking forward to conversations about events before they happen!

Jewel Gopwani: I think there are a lot of questions about this topic. Let’s start with the basics.Who will be drawing the districts and what guidelines will be used to draw them? 

Vince: The districts, as defined by the current charter will be drawn by the Election Commission. The election commission is the President of Council, City Clerk, and Corporation Counsel.

Jewel: So there are districts defined in the current charter? Do we know what era those are from? 

Rochelle: No, the districts are not defined. The Commission, based on the vote by a majority of city voters last November, but draw seven districts that are “compact, contiguous and of equal population.”

Vince Keenan: Technically, there are. They are concurrent and contiguous meaning that the entire city is considered one district, and they are layered on top of each other.

Slim (web chatter): Seriously, isn’t this simply a hail Mary pass instead of addressing the obvious and en-masse problem in Detroit?

Rochelle: Can you elaborate, SLIM?

Mary (a web chatter):Districts will be a better way because the council person knows their neighborhood and can represent the people better with first hand knowledge of their district. 

Rochelle: That was the sentiment of a lot of voters last November, Mary. And some current council members also believe that, too.

Kurt: I am looking at some measure of accountability being introduced into the process.

Rochelle: I’ve had voters tell me that they now will have a way to grade council members. 

Slim: I see this as a canard. The problem that MUST be addressed is crime and lack of education from an inferior education system in the D. If addressed….the rest falls in place.

Vince:Slim, historically, I think the at-large districts were more of a hail-mail election reform. Districts are more common.

Rochelle:@SLIM. That is why many voters feel this will help. Having smaller, more compact regions to manage will make it easier to handle problems such as crime and failing schools. That is why there is an annual raising of the idea of Detroit having several smaller school districts instead of one larger one.

Kurt: Those other issues definitely must be addressed Slim, as well as many other things. This is an issue that must be done simultaneously. In the end, an educated electorate is the best answer

Vince: Crime and Schools are both local issues. Districts help localize the conversation. Consider how the mayoral control discussion would have gone if someone could have said, “What are you, Councilperson X,  going to do about Southwestern High School?”, instead of the generalized conversation about schools

Rochelle: I can’t tell you how many times I heard during the recent campaigns leading up to Election Day, a candidate say “Well, that’s not my job.”The way people live is every elected official’s job

Slim: You all seem so excited about this–Why? This is window dressing. Where are the people with integrity honesty that will lead instead of falling for the same old, same old. It seems anyone “elected” turns out to have alterior motives. Address the quality of people for election?

Rochelle:@SLIM. You’ve talked about what won’t work. What do you think will work? What should happen? @Mary@Slim. I think it’s harder for an official to run away from his or her job if it is small, defined and their success can be measured.

Kurt: I have a hope that districts will encourage a better group of candidates to come forward because name recognition and a large warchest will not be so necessary. 

Jewel: Wouldn’t it introduce a more diverse government? Not necessarily a more racially diverse council, but people who live in various parts of the city.

Kurt:Definitely more representative of Detroit’s diversity

Slim: Sorry for being negative Rochelle…but I don’t see the light like you do. These appointed/elected folks will be overwhelmed by the politics and corruption.

Vince: Districts will ensure that candidates will be able to walk from end-to-end and knock doors, meet people during a campaign. Detroiters need to be more open to campaigns. Nearly a third of us vote early absentee and cut campaigns in half.

Jen: Accountability is KEY. I live in a relatively nice Detroit neighborhood, but like many others, we have our share of abandoned homes. I called the City to report an address and I was told: “O.K., it’s in the system, someone will check on it.” Sure, I got the guy’s name I spoke to, but he merely entered the information; he’s not the one who will actually take care of it. I’d absolutely LOVE to contact a council person about the house and then he or she would be the one directly responsible for moving the process along. (No more “It’s not my job!!!”)

Mary: If you live in the neighborhood (of the ) district you represent, you know the problems there. Unfortunately many council members across Michigan are only looking for the power and pay check!

Joel in Flint (a web chatter): How will the districts ensure that a representative wont get all of the downtown/midtown area with a lot of pull?

Kurt: Looks like we will definitely have to break it up.

Rochelle:@Joel> That is the big question. Downtown. One suggestion in the package is that downtown become part of the at-large reps’ responsibility. I like that idea. 

Vince: Of course the 2 at-large reps in the new system will be able to focus on the big picture.

Vince: How is it in Flint Joel?

Joel: As far as districts go, its very effective. I can’t tell you how many times people I know have called the city and they do nothing, but they call their city councilman and it gets done in a few days. The 9 wards we have here work very well

Kurt: I am happy to hear that, Joel, as I believe you have had some interesting Mayoral politics in Flint!

Rochelle: Folks: This entire effort is about accountability. No longer will council members be able to hide behind having too much responsibility. They will be responsible for, accountable to and graded on what they do in their defined area. I cannot imagine how anyone sees this other than a huge improvement.

Joel: I agree Rochelle. They just definitely need to ensure a system that doesn’t put the entire culture and main business and casinos and sports districts in one representative’s hands.

Jen: AMEN, Rochelle! As long as they’re divided correctly, districts can only HELP the D! I say bring ’em on!!!

Vince: On the other hand, it might be OK to have the big interests fight it out in a single district. If you throw one major interest into a neighborhood district, you could throw off the neighborhood focus.

Slim: How will they be held “accountable” Rochelle?

Rochelle: @SLIM. Voters could oust anyone not doing a good job. The media could focus on a specific issue for a district and how the council member handles it.

Christopher (a web chatter):I hope that district reps for city council come sooner than later– and that council members are given the appropriate responsibilities for city services and area-specific redevelopment projects.

Rochelle:@Christopher That is the only way this will work. If the council members now charged with taking care of their districts have the ability and authority and funds to do it.

Vince: On the other hand, it might be OK to have the big interests fight it out in a single district. If you throw one major interest into a neighborhood district, you could throw off the neighborhood focus. Is downtown Flint in one district?

Rochelle:@vince Good question.

Joel: Downtown Flint is both in the 5th and 7th Wards here. That is very good because you have assets like the University of Michigan-Flint and the Cultural Center in the 7th Ward, yet the headquarters for Citizens Bank and other major office buildings in the 5th Ward. The council here manages to look at downtown as something all 9 wards have a hand in though.

Christopher: About the “at large” aspect– exactly what would these individual(s) be responsible for? Oh, and I feel that the council pres. should be chosen by elected council members in a vote.

Kurt: I agree on the Council President…

Rochelle:@Christopher The at-large reps would serve as they do now with responsibility for the entire city. And current Council President Charles Pugh agrees with you on the council president issue. So do I.

Vince: Christopher – that’s certainly a valid concern, and was not addressed in Proposal D (to do so would have been a compound amendment no-no)

Rochelle: The council president, who is also on the Elections Commission, wants the downtown area split between three districts. It will be interesting

Rochelle: The current council president. Depending on the length of this process, that could change.

Christopher:@ Ms. Riley.(Downtown would be) three independent districts, or 3 sections of downtown incorporated into other districts.

Rochelle:@Christopher. Please call me Rochelle. Yes, downtown would be split three ways.

Part in southeast, part east and part north.

Vince: Still, realistically you will have district council members that have 20,000 vote and at-large who might be elected by 100,000. I bet the leadership vote doesn’t vary all that much.

I’m talking about the difference between the number of voters per elected council members. Don’t get hung up on the actual numbers it’s the ratio. If you prefer: 100% turnout means 115,000 for district candidates and 800,000 for at large. Then they go in and try to figure out who is in charge. At that point, the at-large candidates will have been working coattails, etc. I just think they have a pretty good shot at leadership on the council once elected…

Jewel: So it sounds like we know what the benefits. Could there be negatives? And how does the process of drawing these districts influence the effectiveness of the district structure?

Rochelle: I have more optimism than Vince. I think get-out-the-vote efforts will be easier and maybe finally more people will vote.

Mary: I would consider running in my District. I believe many people could make a positive difference in the city if we had home grown candidates

Rochelle: Mary, I don’t even know you, and I’m excited by the prospect!

Jen: Amen, Mary!

Kurt Metzger: Mary…you have just made the case for getting districts as soon as we can. Slim…would you consider running?

Slim:I already ran….but my heart is still in the D

Kurt: We are reimagining Detroit in many ways. We might even get you to come back Slim.

Rochelle: Now I really want to know who Slim is!!!

Jen: Rochelle, I’d love to see more support and collaboration with local block clubs. We have a very active block club, and many times we receive visits from council members or their representatives. If we had districts, we’d be able to deal with ONE council member on a regular basis instead of having several visits (especially around election time). Our block club currently focuses on everything from neighborhood cleanups, monitoring crime with our local precinct (we put reports of break-ins/car theft, ect. in our newsletter), and the ever-growing problem of abandoned homes. We have a pretty decent working relationship with our local reps, but I think our efforts would have an even BIGGER impact if we could work with one council member assigned to our district. This council member could also focus on issues with the schools in our district (how to improve the ones that are open and give us a status regarding what’s happening with the ones that were closed). (FYI, I live on the far northwest side of the D–right near the Redford Twp. border.)

Rochelle: Jen: That’s an EXCELLENT point! You live in one of the strongest areas of the city – income, voting and residential empowerment wise. You would be helped tremendously by having a single council member. On the map, one council member lives in the West End now while four live above Six Mile between Southfield Freeway and I-75.

Vince: Jen- what neighborhood association are you with? Love to connect offline we’re still working on trying to make this all come together for a better future…

Rochelle: One thing that was interesting to me was where police precincts are. Anyone else take a look at that?

ChristopherChristopher: : I’m in the 10th precinct. My guess is that won’t change once redistricting happens. I’d like to see the entire precinct system reinstated.

Kurt: Police precincts are just one more example of what the lack of a coordinated city planning process does. We have the same with schools, libraries, EMS, recreation, etc.

Rochelle: Good point, Kurt! Everything needs to change based on the new population estimates and changing needs!

Vince:  Just a quick reference map – precincts are here: http://www.detroitmi.gov/Default.aspx?tabid=490

ChristopherChristopher: : I hope that the revisioning efforts in Detroit don’t get derailed due to conspiracy theorizing.. Bing & company must be proactive to get the facts out..

Vince: Amen to that Christopher!

Rochelle: I was just on a radio program where at least two callers said this was a plot to get rid of black people. And they were serious.

Kurt: The process must be open and transparent. the discussion begins Sept 14. Data Driven Detroit will be watching.

Vince: I agree Kurt. We all need to be watching.

Rochelle: @Christopher. You’re right! This process will fail if the mayor doesn’t handle it with the transparency and finesse and passion that other mayors brought to the process. It is a sales job as well as common sense. But common sense doesn’t always win if you don’t explain that common sense to people who need to understand.

Kurt: A tremendous amount of resources are being brought to Detroit. However, if the communication is not coming from the top, cynicism will rule the day.

Jewel: How should people go about having their say in how these districts are drawn? Population is important, but so are neighborhoods? How do you balance the two?

 Kurt: Thanks Jewel for getting us back to the topic. I think Sunday’s article was great in getting other considerations out there. Population is it for the regulators but there is so, so much more.

Slim: Sorry guys. Districts don’t excite me. You/we need a more drastic approach. When the tub is overflowing, you don’t start mopping until you turn the spigot off.

Rochelle: Uh, what, Slim?

Slim: Tub analogy = bad! I mean you will get the same as what you’ve got…only in districts, Rochelle.

Rochelle:  Oh, I got you

Vince: Yeah Slim, I get it. But Districts happened. It’s cool if they don’t excite you, they don’t need to. What is the next step? How do we turn off the spigot?

Rochelle: And Slim, you can’t believe that city council members will get away with what the current ones do, if there is a concrete way to assess and critique what they’re doing, based on what they should be doing, right?

Slim: Oh how I wish I could agree with you Rochelle!!! Council, current and old, are not held accountable in the least. Yet you think the new process will?

Vince: Slim, here’s the thing. Sometimes you need to build consensus around something that can be done. Despite the fact that districts don’t inspire you, a lot of people put a lot of work into it. In fact, a lot of people with the attitude you have actually came around when they got into it. The point is, all those people are now a more engaged group. It was like bootcamp. We’re ready for what’s next, and we’ll probably be able to knock it back faster, better and more efficiently.

Rochelle: Slim, I have to believe it will that because I refuse to embrace a city I cannot believe in. I haven’t spent 10 years trying to make the place better to give up now. What I can’t figure out is this: If people have no hope and think Detroit is done, why are they here? I know why you’re here. You love the place. So let’s hold out hope one more time, what’d you say?!

Jewel: With downtown and the cultural district being a draw for new residents and dollars is there any way to make sure that other parts of the city won’t feel short-changed?

Rochelle: It will be up to the City Charter Commission to ensure that all district members are equal with equal budgets. That will ensure that every district is treated equally.

Christopher:Christopher:  When redistricting happens, I hope there will be new neighborhood city halls..

Vince: Amen again, Christopher. District offices.

Kurt Metzger: Council will not be the total answer. The “land use” process over the next 18 months will determine how neighborhoods will be treated.

Rochelle: Remember, there are three processes going on: land use planning, charter rewriting and district creation. It’s all happening now.

Kurt: I am like a kid in a candy store!!!

Rochelle: @Kurt I know, right!? I am so excited by the possibilities

Jen: Jewel, that’s my concern. We need just as much attention to and support for the neighborhoods (those of us who have worked hard, continued to stay and pay taxes for decades and keep our neighborhoods up) as downtown and other areas will receive.

Rochelle: One thing we haven’t talked about is what the president of the Metro Chamber is looking at – citywide business development, getting companies to look at the seven regions of the city as possible homes for growth!

Vince:  Will there be mini-neighborhood main streets within the city? I hope so…

Rochelle:  THAT would be awesome!

Jewel: I hope so, too! Thanks everyone for a great conversation.

Rochelle:  Send me your ideas and come out to our Town Hall at 6 p.m. Sept. 9 at Second Ebenezer Church. And my thanks to Vince and Kurt for their help on the package!