Detroit City Council Candidate Questionnaire: Saunteel Jenkins

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?

I do not have a quick and easy answer to this question, but then, if an easy answer existed to the City's financial dilemma it would have been implemented long ago.  Mayor Bing, who has been in office since May, is still struggling to get his arms around the City's finances.  As a new member of Council, my first real opportunity to impact the City's budget will come next April and May when Council adopts the budget for the 2010-2011. By then, I will have had an opportunity to conduct an in-depth review of the budget and will be able to make knowledgeable decisions about these questions. 


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

The first way to cut costs and raise revenue is to more aggressively implement the "repair to own" ordinance that allows people to move into abandoned homes, renovate them and become owners of the property.  By encouraging families to take advantage of this ordinance we would cut down on properties that the city has to board up and perform such basic services as cutting the grass.  We also would be generating revenue because those properties would be back on the tax roles. 

A second way to cut costs is to eliminate both the use of city cars and granting car allowances to City Council members and mayoral appointees.  With well more than 100 appointees along with nine Council members, a $600 per month car allowance becomes an expense of nearly $1 million a year.  In these difficult times, we simply cannot afford to continue to provide that perk to Council members and appointees.


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

I have no strong feelings on this issue because I believe that no system, either at-large or election by districts, guarantees good leadership.  The only guarantee of good leadership is electing good leaders.  Right now we are not having a full conversation of all the ramifications of this issue such as, would there be additional costs, how would district lines be drawn and how would city services be parceled out to the various districts?  Anyone who argues that electing people from districts guarantees more a more effective body should be asked to explain how electing school board members from districts has improved the school board. 


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.

My concern on this issue is that we find a way to build a new span across the river in a way that has the least impact on a neighborhood that already has been disproportionately affected by industrial activity.  Southwest Detroit already has the worst air quality in the city and we should do nothing to make it worse.  I believe a complete and thorough environmental impact statement needs to be done for both proposals before any decisions are made.  It is my understanding an evaluation already has been done for the proposed public bridge, but not for the proposed private bridge.  Once thorough evaluations have been done for both projects, then we can have an intelligent discussion and make an informed decision.


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 oppose an indefinite continued use of the incinerator, but do not believe we should rush to close it without a well thought out plan for how we would replace it.  As a member of Council, I would push to develop a real plan to close the incinerator that includes a citywide recycling program designed to cut down the waste that is burned or land filled.  The city has implemented a pilot recycling program in four neighborhoods.  We need to evaluate that plan and then expand it to the entire city.  At the same time we can then determine our landfill needs and move forward to close the incinerator in a very deliberate manner that serves the best interest of the city. 


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?

Given the City's financial situation, there is nothing the City can do of a financial nature to support the arts and culture in Detroit.  The City has no dollars, outside of block grant dollars, to support arts and cultural programs.  As a member of Council I would work to create an environment of promoting partnerships with the private sector to help encourage the vibrant arts environment that exists in the city.  We have the second largest theatre district of any city east of the Mississippi and we need to find ways to call attention to that and help make Detroit more of an entertainment destination. 


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?

As a social worker I have spent my career, whether I was working as chief of staff to Maryann Mahaffey or as the program director for Mariners Inn, working to help people improve their lives in a variety of ways.  In my current job I work every day to help people whose lives have been devastated by alcohol and drugs to put their lives back together. 

In addition to my professional work, I've been actively involved with a number of organizations who provide community service in a wide variety of ways.  These activities include serving on the Traveler's Aid Society of Detroit Board of Directors and as Treasurer of the Detroit East Community Mental Health Center Board of Directors; participating in Kellogg Youth Development Seminars; and working with100 Black Men of Detroit's Mentoring Program; Focus: HOPE; and Detroit Executive Service Corp.


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

I believe with the proper partnerships between the city, our academic community and the private sector Detroit can be a Mecca for the new green economy and help the world reduce its carbon foot print.  We have plenty of empty manufacturing facilities waiting to be renovated, we have a work force that is manufacturing savvy, and we have great universities such as Wayne State University and the University of Michigan who are conducting groundbreaking research in green technologies.  With facilities such as Tech Town and Next Energy already in place, we have made a great start in moving in this direction and need to keep doing all that we can to continue doing that.


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

Detroit is the only major city I know of that has lost enough of its population to create another major city, a situation that creates a very difficult and unique challenge.  I support efforts to concentrate residents in a smaller portion of the city, but it must be done in a way that is fair and equitable to any residents being displaced or relocated.  And changes of this magnitude must be data driven.

I would bring in urban planning experts from Wayne State University and University of Michigan to help the city come up with a plan for "right-sizing" the city.  I understand that we could shrink the city by moving everyone closer to the center, or we could create smaller sections across the city with residential communities and more green space.

I would propose rezoning portions of the land for urban farms, community gardens and small parks.  However, the unique issues and characteristics of each community must be taken into account before specific plans are initiated.


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

My favorite move about politics is "Frost/Nixon."  I liked it because it showed what can happen to someone in public life when ego and arrogance take over.  Anyone who aspires to public office should view it as a reminder of not starting to view ones self as being above the law and not losing site of what public service is really supposed to be about. 


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

I would recommend "The Origins of the Urban Crisis" by Thomas Sugrue.  The book is a thoroughly-researched analysis of economic and social conditions in Detroit before, during and after World War II.  Anyone who wants to understand how Detroit got to where it is today has to read this book. 


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

I would choose the song "I'm not my hair" by India.Arie.  The song speaks directly to many of the pressures young girls face every day to making the point that we become much to preoccupied with superficial appearance rather than dealing with the real person.  The chorus of the song says,

I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations (no)
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within.

That is a very important message that we all can take to heart.


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

You should have asked the question, "What experience do you have that makes you qualified for this position?" 

My answer to that is:

I have a diverse professional background, which includes corporate, non-profit and government experience, all of which have well prepared me to play a constructive role on the city council.

Currently, I'm serving as the Program Director of a substance abuse treatment program for men.  This experience not only gives me an understanding of the challenges faced by the many families in this community affected by homelessness, drugs and poverty, it has also given me first hand knowledge of how non-profits are affected by the city's block grant funding and payment process.

Prior to my current job I worked as a National Business Development Director for an educational services company.  In that job I led the opening of seven offices across the country and worked with school systems in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, CA, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and others.  I was able to gain a broader knowledge base on how and why school systems in other urban areas work—or don't work.  Also, being responsible for opening offices enabled me to see how much easier it is to do business in other cities.

My greatest preparation for serving in a constructive roll on city council came from my six years (one year internship and five years on staff) in the late Maryann Mahaffey's office, the final years of which I served as her chief of staff.  I participated in the budgeting process, providing in-depth analyses for multiple departments.  I worked on some key issues including: casino development agreements; housing development projects; business development projects; homelessness; predatory lending; and many other relevant issues.  The most important lesson I learned during my tenure in Maryann's office was the necessity of an open and honest process within government.  Even when opposing an issue, the process must be one of integrity.

My bachelors and masters degrees in Social Work prepared me well for public policy analysis and advocacy.  Social work also teaches the importance of approaching issues from a holistic perspective.  Most issues are multi-faceted and we need people at the city council table who will do the proper analysis needed to make sound decisions.