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August 2010

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, 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 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:

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!


Feeling Stressed Lately?

Forbes Magazine is back with another Top 10 ranking for the Detroit metropolitan area.  This time we come in tenth among the most stressed-out cities[1] in the United States.  The stress index is comprised of six measures/circumstances that are closely correlated with inducing stress or that result from stress:

  • Unemployment in June 2010
  • Long Commute Times (% spending 60+ minutes – 2008)
  • Long Working Hours (avg. weekly hours spent working – 2008)
  • Limited Health Care (% of population without health care coverage – 2008)
  • Poor Physical Health (% ranking own health as “poor” or “fair” – 2008)
  • Limited Exercise (% of population who had not exercised in the past month -2008)

Our unemployment rate is the third-highest in the nation, which pushed Detroit high on the stress meter. But our short commute time (23rd nationally) and our short working hours (30th nationally), went a long way to mitigate our stress. Alas, it was our health condition that finally did us in.  Detroiters ranked sixth for poor physical health and eighth for limited exercise. While health insurance coverage has always been high in Michigan, the steady loss of  Big Three union jobs that came with health benefits has bumped Detroit down to 16th out of 40.

Want to know who fared worse?

  1. Las Vegas 
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Houston
  4. Tampa
  5. Riverside, CA
  6. Miami
  7. Dallas
  8. New York
  9. Chicago

Do you agree with the ranking? Please tell us how your stress-index has changed in recent years.  What strategies can we follow to move our overall ranking closer to 40?

[1] While Forbes ranked “cities,” the data used actually covers metropolitan areas. For the survey, “Detroit” really encompasses the 6-county (Lapeer, Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne) Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI Metropolitan Statistical Area.  Forbes ranked the 40 largest metropolitan areas in the nation.

DPS teachers spend their summer mapping dangers

D3’s Erica Raleigh (left) and DPS teacher Patrice Hopkins inventory dangerous lots near schools.


For some kids living in Detroit, a task as simple as walking to school can be dangerous. Walking through fields of debris, over glass-strewn sidewalks and by burned, unstable structures can be detrimental to the health and safety of children. In areas where sites have been abandoned for years, residents aren’t necessarily aware of the hazards these structures pose.    

Data Driven Detroit and a team of Detroit Public School teachers are taking on this environmental issue by locating hazardous sites near Detroit high schools and recording their geographical location. The teachers, who are part of the Wayne State University Summer Institute, hope to get this information to residents and policymakers who can eliminate these hazards and create safer neighborhoods. 

“No one has this information,” said Erica Raleigh, D3 research analyst. “Collecting this data will allow us to overlay it with a lot of our other datasets, like the Residential Parcel Survey, vacant land data and data on elevated blood lead levels. This will allow us to see the how the land was used in the past, which could reveal more hazards. We may be able to find a correlation between health troubles like high lead levels and the areas they live in.” 

With a goal of locating brownfields—previously used or industrial land that contains burned structures or illegal dumping—data analysts and teachers examined Detroit neighborhoods near Southeastern High School, Communication and Media Arts High School, Detroit International Academy and Detroit City High School. The teams documented the conditions of the sites and which elements on the land posed risks to children. 

There are many contaminated substances that can be found in vacant lots and burned homes, said Raleigh, including leaking gas cans, lead paint and scrap metal. 

“Many times kids like to take short cuts when they’re walking to school and are sometimes less aware of their environment than adults,” she said. “They may happen to walk through one of these sites and pick up something on their clothes or shoes or if they’re wearing shorts, they may brush up against something like a piece of scrap metal or broken glass.”   

In the neighborhoods near Detroit City High School, the data collectors found numerous abandoned structures and some vacant homes that weren’t boarded or properly secured. 

“I think the most surprising thing was the fact that so many of the vacant lots and structures were heavily concentrated close to the school,” Raleigh said. 

Teachers affiliated with the institute hope to share their findings with their future students, teaching them how to record data using GPS units. Patrice Hopkins, a teacher at Detroit City High School, said “I’m glad that I’m getting out here and I’m finding out how to use the equipment and learning about how others use the equipment to gather data.” 

Hopkins hopes to teach her students how to record GPS data, and how to analyze their findings.  

D3 is proud to be a part of a project that is pushing for the safety of Detroit residents and children.  

“Putting this information together and making it accessible to the public gives them a leg to stand on when they go to the city as one voice and say ‘this is a problem and this needs to be fixed,’” said Raleigh. 

For every Michigan voter, three sat out the primaries

Where have all the voters gone?

Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land announced that nearly 1.7 million voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary, based on unofficial returns.

“I would like to thank everyone who took the time to cast a ballot,” said Land, Michigan’s chief election officer. “Turnout mirrored our projection of nearly 1.7 million registered voters casting ballots. I expect many more voters to cast ballots in the Nov. 2 general election and my department will continue to encourage residents to register and then vote.”

Tuesday’s turnout reflects 22.9 percent of Michigan’s 7.2 million registered voters. An analysis of county level turnout[1] (no city results are available yet) found it ranged from a high of 41.8 percent in Leelanau County to a low of 10.8 percent in Menominee County.

Among counties in the Detroit metropolitan area, Oakland County led the pack at 26.5 percent, followed by Livingston (26.0%), Lapeer (25.4%) and St. Clair (24.8%).  Macomb and Washtenaw were the only others to surpass 20 percent.  At the bottom of the pack were Wayne (18.0%), Monroe (18.0%), Lenawee (18.5%) and Genesee (18.6%).

While we do not have ‘official” results from Detroit as of yet, the forecast prior to the election was for a 12-15 percent turnout.  All indications are that the forecast was “on the money.”

The statewide results represent the highest turnout for a primary since 2002’s 23.3 percent, and the third highest since 1978. But that’s nothing to brag about. Because so many districts have been gerrymandered to be dominated by one party, primaries often determine the outcome of the general elections. That means that less than a quarter of the voting public (and many times less than that) are deciding who gets elected throughout Michigan.

This is a VERY SAD commentary on the voting process.  Whether voting is considered a civic duty or a privilege of citizenship, Americans continue to FAIL THE TEST.

[1] Turnout totals were calculated using 2009 Census estimates of county populations 18 years and over.  While the author realizes that not all persons 18 years and over are eligible to vote – particularly non-citizens – and that a small percentage does not register, these figures represent the best estimates possible at the current time.

Real data impact real lives


Data Driven Detroit is dedicated to helping community development through the sharing of data. Constantly working with community groups to create positive change, D3 uses data to fuel sound decisions.  

 In partnership with Starfish Family Services, a non-profit child and family service agency, D3 is providing data on families in 14 communities in Western Wayne County. With a focus on the City of Inkster, D3 will examine factors including high school graduation rates, teen pregnancy rates and household income. These findings will allow Starfish to plan strategically to meet the more dire needs of the communities it serves.  

Starfish CEO Ann Kalass said the data will especially help them improve their early childhood programs.

“We want to understand what is it that the community needs, what resource services exist to meet those needs and where the gaps are,” she said.  

Since childhood development is Starfish’s main focus, D3 is looking at the number of mothers who smoke during pregnancy, the number of mothers who received late or no prenatal care and similar factors to determine the childhood needs in the community.  

Kalass said she is most interested in the stress index D3 is creating for the families.  After reviewing education levels, poverty levels, health care availability and the lack of other resources, D3 will create an index that measures the stress levels of residents.  

Starfish CEO Ann Kalass (center) poses with D3's Katharine Frohardt-Lane, Andrew Wishka after a community meeting.


“This information will put us in better touch with the community we serve,” said Kalass. “The better informed we are, the better job we are going to do in fulfilling our mission.”  

Thus far, the D3 team has found the City of Inkster to have the greatest need out of the 14 communities. “The data show through income levels, limited health care access and calls to the 211 help line they are lacking the basic necessities,” said Katharine Frohardt-Lane, D3 research analyst.  

In June, Starfish held a community stakeholders meeting at which D3 joined Inkster’s literacy advocates, educators, religious leaders and other community leaders as they discussed ways to more effectively serve their community. The meeting gave D3 an opportunity to share their contributions to the improvement of Inkster and also hear the community’s concerns, which provided focus to their data collection. Kalass was grateful that D3 could be a part of the conversation. “I think the meeting helped them put some texture and community face behind the numbers,” she said.  

D3 continues to look for ways to take information and make it useable to the public, said Kurt Metzger, Director of Data Driven Detroit.  

“One of our primary reasons for being is to get communities and community residents to utilize information,” he said. “We also want to work with organizations to help them better understand the data. “