My telephone answering machine was blinking like a Christmas tree with some 12 messages when I got home from a walk Friday afternoon. I was pretty surprised since I'd only been out for an hour. I pushed the play button.
"Where you at, man?" I heard the voice of conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Mulenga Harangua. "We need to get out and fight the power on this one. They're trying to take away the people's voice. I told you so. The Detroit City Council's been drinking that DCC juice, you know, Disrespectful to Common Causes, and they got Wayne County Judge Virgil Smith on the juice too …"
All of the messages, except for one from a company offering to steam clean my carpet for cheap, were from Harangua. He'd been beating my eardrums for weeks about some nefarious plot to derail Proposal D, the result of a petition circulated by the coalition Detroiters for City Council by Districts. I'd pooh-poohed his insistence that state Attorney General Mike Cox's Aug. 24 instruction to council to tighten up the proposal's language before it was placed on the ballot would somehow lead to killing the initiative. But as I've heard said: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean nobody's out to get you.
Last week, the whole ballot initiative turned into a horrible mess. The council and its Division of Research and Analysis (DRA), along with the city's Law Department, decided to block the coalition, the 38,000 Detroiters who signed the coalition's petition, the governor, the state attorney general, City Clerk Janice Winfrey and, according to a recent poll, 70 percent of Detroiters who support the proposal. Nice time for the council to flex its muscle after all the bullshit and dysfunction it has let fly in recent years. But then, this proposal threatens the council's status quo.
On Tuesday, Sept. 15, the day language was due at Winfrey's office for the ballot proposal, the council met to ostensibly draft the "no more than 100 words" for Proposal D as directed by Cox. Instead, at the last minute, council chose to debate state law and whether the proposal is consistent with the state's Home Rule City Act, which sets the ground rules for local governance — this despite Cox's August conclusion that Proposal D "is consistent with HRCA."
At the same meeting, David Whitaker, director of the DRA, delivered the opinion that the proposal was a revision of the city charter rather than an amendment — rhetoricians, get out your dictionaries. Eventually, Sheila Cockrel introduced, and council passed, a resolution to ask the attorney general's office to review the legality of the proposal — again.
"You have City Council and the Law Department throwing up a smokescreen to keep us off the ballot," says Mildred Madison, president of Detroit League of Women Voters, one of the organizations supporting the drive for council by district. "Every time this comes up you have this battle between the people and the City Council and the administration. I don't know where Mayor Bing is about this. He's new, but I do know the Law Department and I don't think they're for council by districts. But the state attorney general said everything was legal and fine as far as the petition was concerned."
You've probably heard that the coalition filed a complaint in Circuit Court to direct Winfrey to put Proposal D on the ballot and how Friday Judge Virgil Smith ruled against it. Although Detroiters for City Council by District has appealed, we're about six weeks from Election Day, and it's pretty tight with getting the ballot prepared, proofread, printed and distributed, especially for absentee voters.
Now I'm feeling my inner Mulenga Harangua talking up a blue streak. Council had some three weeks to voice concerns about the proposal yet waited until the last minute to introduce a debate about its legality. I can hear those voices saying, "Be patient, these things take time to work through." Bullshit! You don't have to be paranoid to suspect a deliberate attempt to derail Proposal D.
Council member Sheila Cockrel argues that the proper way to proceed is for the City Charter Commission — to be elected in November — to address council by districts when it revises the entire City Charter. The commission could ensure the district system meshes with the rules for how the council president and president pro tem are chosen, and how council members are replaced mid-term, if that becomes necessary. The charter commission could also give council members some say on delivery of services to their districts. Right now council has no authority on delivery of services; that rests with the mayor.
And that last point is key if district-based council members are supposed to be accountable for conditions in their neighborhoods. Holding their feet to the fire without giving them any clout is a recipe for dysfunction (of which we already have plenty in the city). The charter commission could also ensure a district system is in sync with the technical provisions of the HRCA.
"You can have council by district, but whatever we do, do it right and have it under the law. We're capable of doing both of these," says Cockrel.
But there's a problem with Cockrel's leave-it-to-the-charter commission approach: The commissioners might design a reasoned system that integrates district-based councils into a new system of city governance. But nothing compels them to give Detroiters a district system of any kind.
On the other hand, if voters put a district provision into the charter on Nov. 3, then there is no way the commission can ignore it. Most commission candidates say they support the idea of council by districts, but strange things happen in politics. Madison remembers our last charter commission as an example.
"The commission they had back in the '90s, I asked did they ever have public forums, did they ever have hearings?" she says. "We could not find any evidence that they actually had hearings."
The last commission, elected in 1994, had a strange and ultimately failed dance with the idea of council by districts. That group came up with a confusing choice between the present system and an 11-member district system that voters rejected in 1996. Then there was a proposal for a district system of elected advisory councils that would work with our at-large city council. That system never materialized. Cockrel says that various community groups opposed it.
"I don't trust promises anymore," says 83-year-old Madison. "We have had a lot of promises that have not been kept. The history shows it."
And while Cockrel, who isn't running for re-election, would no longer seem to have a vested interest in the at-large council system, she seems mighty protective of the system that's benefited her and other incumbents for years.
Maybe there is something to this conspiracy stuff. The next time Harangua gets in my ear I'll have to pay closer attention. Hmmm … it looks like I've got a few more phone messages.
Postscript: Just before press time Tuesday I got a call from an ecstatic Harangua. "We won!" he screamed into my ear. "We won! The state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Detroiters for City Council by Districts."
"That's just great, man. I guess you don't have to worry about that anymore."
Suddenly the joy disappeared from his voice and took on its usual wary, haunted tone. "We'll see about that. I won't believe it until I see it on the ballot. I'll get back to you later. I need to talk to a couple of people."Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]