Detroit City Council isn’t ‘dysfunctional,’ but it can let the perfect be the enemy of the good

There are sometimes unintended consequences to holding out for something better

Dec 14, 2022 at 1:38 pm
click to enlarge Due to Detroit City Council, many residents are stuck playing a waiting game. - City of Detroit
City of Detroit
Due to Detroit City Council, many residents are stuck playing a waiting game.

We love French words here in metro Detroit, even if most of us don't pronounce them correctly. A phrase I've been thinking about a lot lately has its roots in a French proverb attributed to Voltaire (who apparently cribbed it from the Italians): "l'ennemi du bien est le bien," or "the best is the enemy of the good."

The phrase is used to describe how people can get caught up in chasing perfection, but as a result never accomplish anything — something that has been on my mind following recent developments from Detroit City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan, who have become embroiled in a public feud unlike any we've seen in recent years.

Last week, Duggan and City Council President Mary Sheffield traded barbs following Council's 11th-hour decision during a Nov. 22 meeting to terminate a nearly $50 million contract with Transdev, a French company that provides transportation services for the city's residents with disabilities. The move left among about 1,000 residents who rely on the services daily with an uncertain future, just as Council adjourned on its holiday break until the new year.

Adding insult to injury, the Federal Transit Administration said such a move was a violation of federal law. The Mayor was understandably pissed, leading him to issue this zinger: "We're dealing with a dysfunctional City Council for the first time in nine years, I've got to get adjusted to that," Duggan told reporters at a news conference last Tuesday.

Sheffield responded to Duggan in a statement Wednesday, calling it a "travesty to arrive at a point that a fellow elected official deems it necessary to attack members of Council for faithfully discharging their duties and representing their constituents," adding, "Unfortunately, intimidating that City Council is 'dysfunctional' or that the Administration has to clean up 'Council's mess' is a false narrative, shameful and highly inappropriate rhetoric directed towards a duly elected body."

Now, we think calling City Council "dysfunctional" for trying to do the right thing is unfair. (Recall that multiple members of the previous City Council were investigated by the FBI for corruption, and Andre Spivey and Gabe Leland were sentenced for bribery.) And it seems Council had good reason to give Transdev the boot, including alleged subpar service and for hiring drivers accused of sexual misconduct. Councilwoman Gabriela Santiago-Romero said she changed her vote to reject the contract after reading communications from her constituents in the disabled community, as well as transit advocates.

"I believe we were presented with a false choice: either to pass a contract for a company with a poor history of service delivery or vote for a 70% reduction in services," Santiago-Romero said in a statement. "It is the Administration's job to do their due diligence to provide Council with an amended Transdev contract or an expedited process to seek other vendors. It is our job as Council to consider all options — beyond this one false choice — and be given the time and required detailed information to make the decision on behalf of the people this will most impact."

Using executive powers available in public emergencies, Duggan was able to quickly line up a package of contracts with four other transit providers, though at a higher cost, up from $4.7 million to $5.8 million for six months, according to Axios. The city will start looking for a better long-term paratransit service provider in 2023. Still, the resulting spat was quite possibly the worst since council president pro tempore Monica Conyers insulted council president Ken Cockrel, Jr. by calling him "Shrek," after the famous animated ogre, during a heated exchange in a 2008 meeting.

The incident also recalled another from recent memory. In 2018, Michigan voters approved cannabis sales for adult use in municipalities that chose to allow them. Detroit has had medical cannabis provisioning centers after voters approved that measure in 2008, many of which were banking on the city to allow adult use sales so they could generate more money.

But four years later, Detroit still doesn't have adult-use dispensaries, forcing customers to head to the suburbs (or the black market). That's because efforts led by Council President pro Tem James Tate to allow adult-use sales in the city have stalled twice. Tate was trying to help people from communities harmed the most by the racist war on drugs — like Detroit — by creating an ordinance that would give them a leg-up, offering long-time residents priority in licensing.

It was a nice idea in theory, but an absolute failure in practice. In March 2021, a resident who lived in the city for 11 out of the past 30 years sued, arguing that she would be denied a license due to the policy. A federal judge agreed, saying Detroit's ordinance was "likely unconstitutional." In April of this year, the city revised the ordinance by dividing applicants into "equity" and "non-quity" tracks so they aren't competing with each other for limited licenses, but the ordinance also restricted the city's existing medical dispensaries from converting their licenses to adult-use until 2027. Unsurprisingly, this drew even more lawsuits, though a judge eventually dismissed them.

So now dispensaries are, allegedly, finally on the way in Detroit. We'll believe it when we see them. Suffice it to say the Motor City is late to the weed game, and due to oversaturation of the market, cannabis prices have since plummeted. So when Detroit's dispensaries finally do open, it might not be as lucrative of a business. In the meantime, businesses that have been holding out for years for Detroit to open up its adult use cannabis market have been forced to give up their dreams, unable to wait any longer. That's according to a June Politico cover story headlined "The Unintended Consequence of Trying to Give Black Marijuana Entrepreneurs a Head Start."

Of course, Detroit City Council is not wrong to try and do better for the city's residents. But in both instances, in holding out for better, City Council wound up leaving residents who are among the city's most vulnerable with nothing, instead of a flawed thing.

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