The court and the council

The Michigan Supreme Court actually did something right last week. It ruled — unanimously, no less — that the City Council-altering referendum the Michigan Legislature shoved onto Detroit’s primary ballot at the last minute is unconstitutional.

If voters had approved it, that measure would have replaced Detroit’s current system, under which all nine council members are elected by the entire city, with one where all would have been elected by districts.

There were several things deeply wrong with that. For one, it was ordered onto the city’s ballot by an imperial Legislature, without consultation with the council or any indication that anyone in Detroit wanted this now.

That’s especially bad because of the whiff of patronizing colonial imperialism about it. The Legislature is mostly made up of white Republicans; Detroit is more than four-fifths black, and even more Democratic than that.

And this bill was just plain bad. For one thing, it would have given the mayor the power to determine the district boundaries. So, if he was having trouble with Brenda Scott and Sharon McPhail, say, he might stick both into the same council district, eliminating one.

For another: While there are advantages to the idea of having council members responsible for geographic areas (who now speaks for southwest Detroit?), there are very real disadvantages to having all elected that way. An all-district system would make it much easier for the executive to divide and conquer, by buying off, legally or otherwise, a bare majority of councilmen.

Plus, if a council member’s political livelihood is dependent on one small section of the city, it may be hard to make tough decisions for the welfare of the city as a whole.

But while this turkey was killed at the processing plant, there is also no doubt that the present system isn’t working all that well. To repeat my earlier question, who now speaks for southwest Detroit? Also, who in the world has time, in November, to study the merits of 18 council finalists and intelligently pick the best nine?

Nobody normal, that’s who. But if the voters had to focus on only a few candidates, they might make intelligent choices. A principled, attractive but largely unknown candidate like state Rep. Hansen Clarke could have a much better shot in a one-on-one against the well-known Lonnie Bates, if voters had the time to sort out what the odoriferous Lonnie was well-known for.

City Council needs to ward off any further legislative meddling by fixing this situation. The Supreme Court, by the way, didn’t say the Legislature couldn’t mess with how Detroit governs itself — it just said it needs a two-thirds majority to do it.

If Detroiters think Lansing can’t possibly pull that off, or that the next governor might not sell them out, they are asking for it. So, since nobody but a few readers have asked me, here is my solution.

City Council should put a measure on the November ballot that would ask the voters if they want to change to a system under which:

Four council members are elected at large to four-year terms.

Five council members are elected to the same terms by district.

District boundaries would be determined impartially by Kurt Metzger, Detroit’s leading demographic expert, and his superb staff at Wayne State University’s Michigan Metropolitan Information Center. The only requirement would be that each has identical population, about 190,000 people, based on the last census.

That, or something like it, might be worth trying. The fundamental purpose of government, or so my civics textbook said, is to make life better for the people. Funny how often that seems to be forgotten, even though that’s so simple most politicians and maybe even a journalist ought to be able to get it.

Green Party blues: Old-time hack Democrats hate the Green Party, and not only because they believe, with some reason, it caused Al Gore’s defeat. They really don’t like it because it has the potential to point out what sellouts many of them are.

Frankly, having the Greens around to pressure Democrats toward people- and environment-oriented policies could be a very good thing. But I don’t see this happening here. Instead, the Greens have been consumed with squabbling over whether to move their headquarters, and whether to allow people to bring pets to their meetings. This, in an important election year when they should be focusing on what races to contest, what candidates to run and what their main issues should be.

They have a droll fellow named Doug Campbell running for governor, but it is in the U.S. Senate race that they should be making a major effort. Carl Levin has only token Republican opposition. The Green Party could use this opportunity to show that Levin long ago sold out to the automakers on pollution standards, and that, as head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he needs to stand up to the Pentagon.

The right candidate and the right campaign could get the Greens on the map and poll half a million votes without endangering Prince Carl. Yet I don’t see it, or much else intelligent, happening. Earlier this month they denied Mike Madias the Green Party nod for Congress against Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.

Madias, who lives in Highland Park and writes an interesting e-newsletter (Detroit Hardball) wanted to point out that CCK is notoriously bad on constituent services. But the Greens chose not to run anyone. Seems some were offended that the cash-flow-challenged Madias did some free-lance for the dailies during the newspaper strike. Yet two years ago, the Greens were happy to run someone who changed her name to Bonnie Bucqueroux for Congress in Lansing, directly causing the election of a right-wing Republican.

Oh, well. Priorities are priorities, and maybe they’ll get it together just as soon as they decide if you can bring your ferret to hear Paully Moonbeam perform.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]