Detroit City Council Candidate Questionnaire: James Tate

Oct 14, 2009 at 12:00 am

About 50 percent of the city's $1.8 billion general fund budget is spent on salaries and benefits. Is there a way to address an accumulated deficit of at least $300 million and avoid the risk of insolvency without significantly reducing those worker costs? If not, by what percentage overall do you think they should be cut?

After reviewing the general fund budget (located on the City of Detroit's website), it is clear that additional revenue generating ideas must be developed for Detroit or insolvency is inevitable.  We simply need more money coming in. I believe that the reduction of salaries and benefits must be the last resort in addressing our budget deficit. Other cost cutting and savings measures should be identified and implemented before that takes place. I also believe that a forensic audit is necessary for several city departments in order to fully understand whether taxpayer dollars have been misappropriated.

I favor right-sizing city staffing through salary concessions and furlough days more than disrupting worker's benefits or layoffs. Any recommended cuts that I propose will be fair to the workers and have the least negative impact on our community.


Do you have any other ideas as to how the city can either significantly cuts costs or raise revenue?

Revenue generation will be one of my highest priorities while in office. I will execute this priority through: 1) better regulation of the contract process, 2) leasing naming rights of some Detroit public properties and 3) implementing an aggressive ‘Buy Detroit' campaign.

If elected to City Council, my office will immediately explore the feasibility of naming rights. This idea has been done successfully in other cities and could allow us to potentially generate significant revenue by allowing corporations to sponsor properties such as Belle Isle or the People Mover.  This process will allow Detroit to retain ownership while generating funds that can be dedicated to improving city services.  Monies that Detroit receives in exchange for the naming rights will not be at the expense of worker's jobs or benefits, and will not disrupt city services. The city of Detroit would have the right to refuse any naming rights lease deemed inappropriate.

One of my biggest strengths as a potential Detroit City Council member will be my innate understanding that Detroit is ready for innovation. Council members must follow best practices when approaching the issue of revenue generation.  I will work cooperatively with organizations that seek to improve the business climate through creating a culture of commerce for Detroit. Groups such as the Independent Retailers Association, CEM Business Association on East Warren Avenue, and the Jefferson East Business Association have aggressively opened businesses and mobilized citizens to improve the business climate within the city.

Small business districts improve the quality of life by making neighborhoods more livable and y make services and goods more accessible. It also encourages others to invest in the area via home purchases or business relocation, generating revenue for the city.  These thriving business communities also attract potential buyers, renters and other businesses.

Detroit can also significantly reduce costs and raise revenue by strictly enforcing codes designed to reduce blight and abate environmental hazards.  The City of Detroit has borne the costs of the demolition of abandoned structures for too long.   This burden should rightfully be transferred to the owners of those dilapidated properties, a step that would create an immediate significant savings, while eliminating unsafe and potentially hazardous buildings.


Would you support changing Detroit's city charter to allow district elections for some or all council members?

The Charter Commission will play a crucial role in making certain that the Detroit City Council is granted adequate and appropriate authority.  If executed properly, council governance by district introduces a level of accountability that the City Council has not previously experienced.  City Council members elected by district will not have the luxury of ignoring any segment of the community, as some council members have done in the past.  I support City Council by Districts within the context of a revised City Charter that provides adequate and appropriate powers of accountability for City Council members. The City Charter now provides for the Mayor to have sole control over departments. While I do support strong executive government, the current system makes the task of addressing city services too difficult for members of the City Council.

I support amending the city charter to allow a hybrid system that provides governance by district for a determined number of council members, with a determined number of council members to serve at large.  I propose a ‘hybrid' city council, with six seated members serving districts, and three at-large members. In this manner, residents in each district will have an equal voice, and an added layer of accountability and resident access for resolution of concerns.


The Detroit International Bridge Co. is attempting to purchase a section of Riverside Park so that it can build a new span adjacent to the Ambassador Bridge. At the same time, a publicly owned bridge is being planned for the Delray area. Explain your support for or objection to each plan.

Both projects have their value. However, I am more prone at this time to lend my support to the Delray project because it is publicly owned.  Despite the several lawsuits involving the bridge, I believe that the final project must go forward in a manner that is inclusive of the citizen's concerns in the surrounding communities.   


The City Council has twice voted to send the city's trash to landfills instead of the incinerator, and is exploring its legal options in an attempt to make that happen. The administration, meanwhile, is considering purchasing at least a share of the facility, and possibly all of it. As a council member, would you support or oppose continued use of the incinerator?

I take environmental stewardship very seriously, particularly as it has been neglected for so many years in Detroit.  There have been several studies that suggest the health of those living near the incinerator have suffered as a result of their proximity. If the incinerator can't be made safe and useful, we must look at alternatives, including closure.

I do need additional detailed information to make a final decision to determine if closing the facility would create more of a financial burden for the city of Detroit as a result of a lawsuit. I would also like to see a feasibility study on the pros and cons of modifying the incinerator to make it energy producing and environmentally responsible.  If this can be done, it will prove to be a superior alternative to landfills, which are known hazards. While using landfills allows organic waste to decompose, they also create environmental issues.  Landfills are responsible for about one-third of all methane emissions in the United States.


Given the city's fiscal crisis, what, if anything, would you do as a council member to help support the arts and culture in the city?

I want to develop a collaborative taskforce, encompassing the Mayor's Office, State of Michigan cultural departments, local mainstream cultural entities and the avant garde underground artist's communities, dedicated to identifying alternative forms of funding and promotion. I think the most effective place to start is working directly with those in the arts and culture communities.  Michigan as a whole is facing a crisis concerning Arts and Culture.  It is to our detriment if we don't address this issue immediately.

The recent loss of cultural funding has negatively impacted our creative community.  The loss of opportunities for artists to make a living sharing their talents via cultural and educational events diminishes us all. It is vitally important to maintain vibrant arts and culture sector; there is a strong correlation between arts and culture, and the ability to attract and retain young people and create vibrant communities. Detroit needs to be appealing to young people if we want to grow.


What have you done personally or professionally to help advance civil rights, regional cooperation, race relations, poverty reduction, pro-environmental efforts, or any other similarly significant cause?

While working at the Detroit Police Department, I was in charge of law enforcement communications for several multi-jurisdictional operations, including 2006's Super Bowl.  Despite all law enforcement agencies having the same goals: reducing crime, apprehending criminals and solving crime, many are very territorial in their operations. I worked hard to build bridges that had long been destroyed as a result of distrust. I understood that the purpose of any initiative was that we maintain our common goals (mentioned above) but that we also work collectively so that all entities are able to report back to their respective communities how their tax dollars were being properly used, and how mutual cooperation reestablished trust and respect. 


As a council member, what could you do to help Detroit capitalize on the burgeoning green economy?

I believe that the farmable areas in Detroit should become food producing cooperatives.  Vast areas are virtual prairies that have had many years to establish a healthy soil ecosystem.   The city proper is a food desert; we do not produce food to a degree necessary to sustain the population.

This would return the land to use, provide employment, and teach valuable skills to residents who need them most.  I think that integrating farmlands into urban areas will be the wave of the future, and Detroit is poised to lead that movement.


What innovative ideas do you have in regard to dealing with the massive amounts of vacant and abandoned property in Detroit?

Bill, and collect, from the owners of the properties for their demolition.  Convert the land into a variety of agribusinesses. 

Areas that have virtually reverted to their pre-industrials states can benefit from programs such as the USDA's Farmable Wetlands Programs.  Open green space is needed for the health of the planet and its inhabitants, particularly those of us living adjacent to that land.   


Name one of your favorite movies about politics? What is it about this movie that made an impression?

Tie "Wag the Dog" and "Last King of Scotland".

Wag provided a comical yet very believable display of how far some people in power are willing to go to cover up their misdeeds.

Scotland really hit home the idea why it is important to maintain your personal dignity and integrity even when it seems that everyone around you appears to have, or has fallen prey to, the consumption and corruption of power.


What book dealing with politics or government — either fiction or nonfiction — would you recommend others read? Why?

I recommend ‘Soul on Ice', a book of memoirs by Eldridge Cleaver.  When written, Cleaver was an imprisoned man who seemed conflicted by his past transgressions, while trying to discover his racial identity in America. He knows what his misdeeds were, but at times seemed to justify his actions based on the negative influences that he absorbed in his past environment. Though it was published in the 1970's, this kind of raw insight still rings true today as an example of how many of our nation's young men fail to deal with their emotional pain and fear. It also provides significant insight into ways that the negative effects of the past can be eliminated from tainting a promising future.  It is both thought-provoking and a cautionary tale.


What piece of music (other than Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On,") has affected you in a political, moral or social sense? Please explain why.

"These Three Words" by Stevie Wonder. There was a moment in the movie "Jungle Fever" when a character began walking into her home after a magnificent evening and one of the most beautiful melodies began playing in the foreground. The song was about love and making sure that the people you care about know that you care for them…today. As soon as the she opened the door, her father (whom she absolutely adored) began to beat her.

That scene has always stuck in my mind.  It made me understand that even though you may be on the proverbial "cloud nine", you must be aware that there are others who will be more than happy to bring you down and harm you. But, the most important thing is to not let the fear of someone else's potential attack impede your pursuit of happiness and well being.  Be happy, but be aware, and be prepared, is what I took from that song and scene.


What question should have been included in this, but wasn't? And what would your answer to that question be?

Some people have questioned my role in the former administration. My role was as a communicator. I have a degree in Radio/TV/Film from Wayne State University. I earned an Emmy for my behind-the-scenes work at WXYZ-TV following graduation.  I worked there for six years, as a communicator.  I was offered my position with the city of Detroit based on my background and experience, period.

While at the Detroit Police Department (DPD), I was the commanding officer of the Office of Public Information. My job was to relay to the public information that was provided to me. I would do all that I could to confirm the accuracy of that information, and many times challenged details until I became comfortable with what I was presenting to the public.  That was very important to me because while I served as the spokesperson for the DPD, it was my reputation on the line. Unfortunately, I found that during my five years in that position, there were some who provided deliberately erroneous information. I've also had some people ask why I didn't quit. I didn't quit my job because I love being a public servant. When I provided information regarding a crime, I was speaking on behalf of those who couldn't speak for themselves: the victims. I don't come from a family that leaves their challenges; we face them head-on.  I knew that with all the negative things that were happening with Detroit's public officials that it was important that residents had someone they knew would represent them with professionalism, integrity and compassion.  I stayed for Detroit residents, and for the victims of crimes and their families.