Get it right 

This electing-Detroit-City-Council-based-on-districts thing is exciting me more than anything else in local politics in a long time. Why? Because I think it is high time we have representatives who are more directly accountable to the people, and council by districts will do that.

There are two different processes going on that could make that happen. The first starts with Proposal C on the May 5 ballot. Proposal C is not a vote about City Council by districts. It is a vote on whether to seat a Charter Commission to change the city charter. If voters say yes to this proposal, then would-be commissioners have until May 12 (an absurdly short period of time) to register petitions with 500 valid signatures in order to be on the Aug. 4 primary ballot — which will narrow the field to 18 candidates (if more than that number seek spots). Then nine commissioners will be elected in the Nov. 3 election.

When the commissioners are seated, they will then go about addressing changes to the city charter. They may or may not address changing how City Council is elected. The primary reasons the charter question is on the ballot are to clean up language about how to remove a mayor from office and electing a replacement (which, in the future, could help us avoid the bother and expense of four elections in a one-year period). The commission could choose to address anything in the city charter, including the issue of council by districts. Whatever they come up with, the soonest Detroiters could vote on a new charter would be the November 2010 gubernatorial election ballot.

That sounds pretty complicated, which is where the second process comes in. Detroiters for City Council by Districts (DCCD), a coalition of local community groups spearheaded by the League of Women Voters of Detroit, has a petition drive under way that could place the question of electing council by district on the Nov. 3 ballot. Detroiters would then vote yes or no on the issue, technically an amendment to the city charter. If yes, then the Detroit Election Commission draws up the districts and Detroiters elect council members by districts in the 2013 election.

There could be a convergence of the two processes wherein a Charter Commission is seated and Detroiters choose a district system in a direct vote. That could force the commission to nail down the voters' choice in the charter language, although, in theory, the commission could recommend a charter that returns to an at-large council.

I'm hearing a lot of talk about going to a district system and the forces pushing for it seem more organized than in the past. One of my neighbors (who didn't want to be identified) has been gathering signatures on petitions for DCCD and tells me that people are enthusiastic about the idea and rarely does anyone decline to sign. This may well be one of those rare moments when stars align and we actually get something done.

Still, I wonder where this infatuation with the idea could lead. Could it go wrong, so horribly wrong that Detroiters will yearn for the halcyon days of Kwame Kilpatrick? Do we need to tinker with the city charter beyond the council arrangement to move away from this so-called strong mayor system and get a council with more power? Do we have to get it exactly right?

"I don't know that there is a perfect way to do any of this stuff," says Vince Keenan, director of Publius, a Detroit-based nonprofit focused on voter education. "I haven't met anybody working on this that isn't thoughtful."

Keenan, who supports council by districts, seems confident that informed voters can make good choices. The key word is "informed." He points at this year's particularly large group (near 400) of council wannabes, who picked up petitions to get their names on the ballot. It's pretty much impossible for voters to vet the 100-plus of them who will probably get on the primary ballot and make a choice based on who would be best for the city. Keenan thinks that breaking the city down to districts would make the number of candidates more manageable in each. He also believes we should have more districts rather than fewer in order to undermine the influence of possible corruption. But he concedes that it's up to the election commission and voters.

"Elections are human institutions," he says. "What's most important is that process take place with transparency. If something goes awry, then we can see where it happened."

OK, so he's got a little Pollyanna in him, but it's kind of refreshing, given the jaded attitudes of so many Detroiters. Keenan seems to understand how this election stuff works and has concerns that the one week that would-be commissioners have to get 500 names on petitions in order to get on the August ballot favors those already connected to local political powers. That could lead to commissioners who favor the status quo.

There are a few pro-district activists who understand that and have gotten a head start with petitions worded in a cautionary, "if the commission is approved then I would support you," kind of language. But the council-by-district forces are concentrating on the November ballot initiative.

"That's the only time you're going to see the word 'district' on the ballot," says Keenan. "That's a much more straightforward process. If you want to get something done, then put all your eggs in one basket."

Amazingly enough, the May 5 ballot is pretty straightforward too. There are only two issues. You can vote for Kenneth Cockrel Jr. or Dave Bing for mayor, and you can vote yes or no for a Charter Commission. And in this case — unlike too many ballot questions in the past — yes actually means yes, and no really means no. There's nothing else to decide.

If there were a single system that worked perfectly, every city would be using it, Keenan says. Instead we have a variety of charters across the country, strong mayors, weak mayors, city managers, councils in various district arrangements including a mix of district and at-large positions. However, the all-at-large council is unique for a city of Detroit's size. None of the top 10 most populated cities in the United States has an all at-large council system

The bottom line is that we need to make Detroit work. And, at this point, Detroiters need to put in the effort to figure out who these would-be leaders are, and pick those who will move the city in a more positive direction. That has a better chance of happening if we localize our council system so that we can get a grip on government.

Alert levels: What's the deal with those conservatives who are all uptight about a recent Department of Homeland Security report that warns of "growing right-wing extremist activity" and the threat of violence and terrorism? It seems like just last year there were folks among them calling then-candidate Obama a terrorist and yelling things like "off with his head." Sounds like inflammatory activity to me. It's that kind of talk that inspires the Timothy McVeigh types out there. By the way, before 9/11, the worst terror attack in our country was the Oklahoma City federal building bombing by McVeigh and his Michigan homeboy pal Terry Nichols. Methinks the right doth protest too much.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at

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