Detroit council consultations

Oct 14, 2009 at 12:00 am

It is difficult to recall a Detroit City Council race that's been more wide open, or more important to the city.

Two incumbents decided not to seek re-election. A third failed to make it past the primary. And one — Monica Conyers — was removed from the race after pleading guilty to a bribery charge. On top of that, of the five council members trying to retain their seats, polls show that at least a few face a decidedly uphill battle.

So there's no doubt that the election being held on Nov. 3 is more competitive than any in recent memory. But it's not just the competition that makes this race so dramatic. With the city facing the possibility of insolvency if it doesn't quickly reduce an accumulated budget deficit reported to be at least $300 million, the imperative to elect a council that's sober, creative, collegial and hardworking has never been clearer.

To gauge where the candidates stand on the issues, we sent questionnaires to the 18 men and women running. We asked them hard questions about the payroll cuts they'd be willing to make — cuts that most agree are critical if there's any chance of balancing the budget. We asked about weighty issues such as the controversy surrounding two new bridges proposed for the Detroit River — one that would be privately owned, the other public.

Among other things, we also asked candidates about books concerning politics they'd recommend to others, and what movies about politics made a deep impression on them. And then we asked them what questions should have been posed, but were missed.

With all that asking, and so many candidates giving answers, there just wasn't room to fit it all in the paper. You can, however, read each candidate's answers, unedited, online.

What follows here is some of what they had to say. To read the full questionnaires, scroll down to the end of this story.

Money matters

Our first question attempted to get straight to the heart of Detroit's most pressing problem:

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?

Most candidates, while recognizing payroll cuts had to be made, failed to provide a direct answer to this one. 

James Tate, who formerly served as the commanding officer in the Detroit Police Department's Office of Public Information, provided a fairly typical answer: "I favor right-sizing city staffing through salary concessions and furlough days more than disrupting worker's benefits or layoffs."

Businessman Jai-Lee Dearing went so far as to maintain the current workforce should be subjected to no cuts. "Ultimately, we will not be able to cut our way out of this deficit if we expect to maintain even the most basic services offered by the City of Detroit," wrote Dearing. "… I understand that the only way to solve our city's financial crisis is to grow our way out. By building an economic environment that fosters entrepreneurship, new investment and job growth we can expand our tax base and climb out of this deficit."

A few, however, were willing to taking a firm stand.

"Ten percent salary concessions for people who make more than $50,000, and 5 percent concessions for people who make less than $50,000," is the position held by former TV newsman Charles Pugh.

Incumbent Council President Ken Cockrel Jr., who served as interim mayor before losing to Dave Bing in a special election earlier this year, took an even tougher stance: "I believe the hard truth is that a certain level of cuts in worker costs is necessary to reduce costs. When I served as mayor I advocated 10 percent cuts in worker salaries for both union and non-union employees."

Council member JoAnn Watson was alone in putting her faith in manna from the federal government as our fiscal salvation: "Given the Depression-level economic statistics confronting our city and its residents, I believe the city should ask that the federal government invest $1 billion to address the fiscal deficiencies, in the same way the federal government has invested resources in GM, Chrysler and the state of Michigan."

Getting creative 

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

"Long-term revenue generating plans include a comprehensive plan to rebuild entire areas in order to bring in tax revenue," wrote attorney and businessman David Jonathan Cross. "As a developer, I firmly believe that the city of Detroit can and should embrace the idea of partnering with the private sector to build towns within towns where entire areas can be planned from the ground up. …" 

Incumbent Alberta Tinsley-Talabi says city support of small businesses is key. 

"Revenue-generating measures should include small-business development," she writes. "Small businesses create jobs. The city spends hundreds of millions [of dollars] each year to purchase goods and services. They city can generate property and income tax revenue as well as create jobs by focusing on small-business development and concentrating our buying power on Detroit-based businesses to the largest extent possible."

CPA Lisa Howze was one of several candidates to advocate urban farming as a way to help the city recover. "This solves two problems," she noted. It is a way to turn weed-strewn lots into productive land and gives city residents, "particularly senior citizens, access to healthy fruits and vegetables." An additional benefit is that "monies spent to purchase fresh produce will circulate within the city."

Tate advocated exploring the feasibility of having corporations purchase "naming rights" to such things as Belle Isle and the Detroit People Mover. "This process will allow Detroit to retain ownership while generating funds that can be dedicated to improving city services." 

Council by district

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

There wasn't much ambiguity among the candidates when asked this question. Fourteen of the contenders gave the idea their unequivocal support.

Among the more nuanced responses was given by Cockrel, who says he favors the idea, but adds this perspective: "Districts will not be a cure-all. Most people seem to advocate districts because they believe it will result in better city services. This is a flawed argument given that, barring additional charter changes, Detroit is a strong mayor form of government resulting in near absolute control of all city departments, which prevents council from directing departments. However, districts will make council seats more accessible to grass roots candidates and will improve communications between council members and their constituents."

No one voiced any direct opposition to the idea, although three — incumbents Brenda Jones and JoAnn Watson, and challenger Shelley Iris Foy — weren't exactly eager to help make the change happen, indicating they would support the change if that's what voters want. "I support this agenda if this is what the citizens of Detroit desire," writes Foy, a former police officer. "This matter will be on the ballot, and if the referendum passes we should yield to the wishes of our voters."

Even more lukewarm was Saunteel Jenkins, onetime chief of staff for the late Council President Maryann Mahaffey and currently director of the residential treatment program at the Mariners Inn shelter and substance abuse treatment center for homeless men. "I have no strong feelings on this issue because I believe that no system, either at-large or election by districts, guarantees good leadership. … Anyone who argues that electing people from districts guarantees a more effective body should be asked to explain how electing school board members from districts has improved the school board."

Bridging the gap

"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 or objection for each plan.

Of the questions we asked, this one proved to be one of the most difficult for the candidates to answer definitively. One of the most definitive responses came from Mohamed Okdie, a police commissioner and former social worker.

"I am opposed to the privately owned bridge …" he declares. "On the other hand," he adds, "a publicly owned bridge with public input on structure, location, transportation and future fees is by far the better way to proceed."

"The plan by the private company has been roundly blasted for not being sufficiently studied as it relates to air quality, traffic and noise," observes police officer John Bennett. "The private project is a monopoly and does not benefit the community. With the public span there is governmental oversight …"

Attorney David Jonathan Cross, likewise, is leaning toward construction of the public span. "It appears that there is a majority of support from Detroiters, Canadians and the federal government for the Delray plan; from all indications it is the plan that would work best for most people.

Council member Jones didn't address the issue of the Delray bridge, but made clear she does not support a new privately owned span. "I am opposed to expansion of the Ambassador Bridge," she writes. "At the present time there are many toxic companies in southwest Detroit. Southwest Detroit has become the dumping ground for commercial businesses. There are health issues such as high levels of asthma within the community, smog, strong vapors that are hazardous to the health of the community."

Motivational speaker Raphael Johnson, tk, doesn't rule out supporting a new private bridge, but says that certain conditions should be met: "Before the city would even consider giving up a park they should mandate as part of the deal that the MC Depot [the abandoned Michigan Central train station, which is also owned by the bridge company] either be torn down or renovated before the park is released. If the DIBC has the money to build a bridge then I'm certain they have money to take care of our mutual eyesore." 

Johnson says the proposed Delray bridge "should move forward with the cooperation of the city. This is an opportunity to create stability for the area while bringing long-term development to Detroit."

Others said they needed more information before committing to a decision.

"I do support a second span and want to do more research on which option is better," writes the Rev. Andre Spivey. He is, however, certain about one thing: "Even if the DIBC does not purchase the property to build a second span, there needs to be something done to keep that area secured in light of a potential act of terrorism."

Neither project currently garners the support of Ken Cockrel: "At this point I can't support either plan because I don't believe that the business case has been made to justify either one. I do however remain open-minded and in contact with the supporters of both plans."

Burning questions

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?

Incumbent JoAnn Watson has been at the forefront of the fight to force closure of the incinerator that burns 800,000 tons of city and suburban trash annually. "I absolutely oppose continued use of the incinerator," she writes. "It is harmful to citizens, the environment and the budget! I sponsored the legislation to end incineration and spearheaded the efforts to implement citywide recycling."

Mohamed Okdie is equally adamant in his opposition to the facility, writing, "I strongly objected to the monstrosity when it was originally built and am even more opposed to it today."

John Bennett, David Jonathan Cross, Shelley Iris Foy, Fred Elliott Hall, Lisa Howze, Jai-Lee Dearing, Saunteel Jenkins, Brenda Jones, Raphael Johnson and Charles Pugh were all clear in their opposition to the incinerator.

Incumbent Kwame Kenyatta leaves some wiggle room: "I oppose the continued use of the incinerator wherever more cost-effective and environmentally friendly options exist."

Andre Spivey gave himself even more room to maneuver, correctly pointing out that "there is currently a contract with GDRRA [Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority] and research has to be done in order for the city to be relieved of its responsibilities. I believe there are advantages to the incinerator, landfills and recycling. I would want to explore all options." 

James Tate and Alberta Tinsley-Talabi also pointed out that ceasing use of the incinerator anytime soon might not be possible. Saying that he takes "environmental stewardship very seriously," Tate adds, "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." And he rightly points out that landfills have their own environmental problems.

Tinsley-Talabi writes: "While I support the call to reduce the use of the incinerator, Detroit is obligated by contract to send our solid waste to the incinerator thru 2021. To do anything different would expose the city to severe liability and monetary damages. I want to expand recycling in the city in an effort to reduce the use of the incinerator."

Reel politik

Name one of your favorite movies about politics and explain what it is about this film that made an impression.

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. —James Tate

All the Presidents Men. Because it reminds us of the consequences of unethical behavior. —Alberta Tinsley-Talabi

Street Fight: This Oscar-nominated documentary is about the 2002 Newark, N.J., mayoral race. It focused on Corey Booker, the challenger. It was inspirational and motivational. Corey reminded me a lot of myself. He was a young, charismatic "outside" challenging an old-school incumbent. Unfortunately, he lost that race, but became mayor the next time. (LOL) —Charles Pugh

Good Night and Good Luck: The George Clooney movie about Edward R. Murrow. It demonstrated individual integrity in the media, something that except for a few instances is unfortunately lacking today. I also took the time to watch Gandhi. He is a personal hero of mine for his personal (and ultimate) sacrifice for the freedom of his country and people. —Mohamed Okdie

Keeping the Faith: Dealing with Adam Clayton Powell's effectiveness in Congress against all odds during the time period that he served is one of my favorite movies about politics. —Kwame Kenyatta

Conspiracy Theory: Because in the last 20 years there have been so many [conspiracy theories] related to the future of Detroit. I'm constantly reminded that in the end we decide our future, not a secret organization in the basement of Manoogian Mansion. —Raphael B. Johnson

Mr. Smith Goes too Washington: I tend to be a little idealistic and hopeful and this movie has always moved me in sort of a naïve and hopeful way where a regular guy is able to stand up for his principles without wavering; I know it is a little sappy sort of black-and-white movie, but I like it anyway. —David Jonathan Cross

Bob Roberts: The movie makes a powerful statement about how politicians can sometimes adopt the guise of rebels when they're really just out to maintain the status quo. —Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr.

My favorite movie about politics hasn't been written yet. I expect the movie will be about the rebirth of Detroit and I hope to have a staring role in this city's rebirth. —John K. Bennett

Turning the page

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

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama: The citizens of Detroit are void of hope given the condition of the economy and the lack of faith in their elected officials. This book touches you on a spiritual level and makes you believe again. More importantly, it helps us believe in our own human potential. —Lisa Howze

Hard Stuff, Mayor Coleman A. Young's autobiography. —Brenda Jones

The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue: The book is a thoroughly researched analysis of economic and social conditions in Detroit before and after World War II. Anyone who wants to understand how Detroit got to where it is today has to read this book. —Saunteel Jenkins

Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism by Cornel West: I read it many years ago, but it was very influential in developing my perspective on government and how we can form a better democracy. —Fred Elliott Hall

How Barack Obama Won by Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser: This book analyzes the historical 2008 presidential election and is organized by states outlining the voting trends of each state. This can give you further clarification on the past election and highlights some important facts. Although this book is an analysis, other readers can find it to be very enjoyable. —Shelley Iris Foy

Fixing Broken Windows by NYPD Police Chief William Bratton: I recommend this book since it emphasizes community policing and practical steps that can make urban environments safe through community-policing cooperation. —Gary A. Brown

Hard Stuff, Coleman A. Young's autobiography: It's an insightful, historical compilation of Detroit's political, labor and civil rights history, as told from the perspective of the most legendary political presence Detroit have ever witnessed. —JoAnn Watson

Vernon Can Read by Vernon Jordan: It is a book about Jordan's journey in working in the public and private sector. It also shows his rise to be head of the 1992 transition team for President Bill Clinton. —Andre Spivey

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: Perhaps it is an obvious choice, but when I lose faith in the system and how it can treat and cheat people sometimes, I flip through those pages and read the words of the men who put forth the ideas that built this nation. It reminds me of what we are fighting for not only as a country, but also as a community right here in Detroit. —Jai-Lee Dearing

And one last thing

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

"What is your long-term vision for the city of Detroit and how do you plan on getting there?"

My answer to that is this … Detroit needs a 40-year plan. We need to work the equation backwards and understand the decisions we are going to make before making them. At present we are floating around the middle of the ocean waiting for our rescue, grabbing onto anything that floats. That's ridiculous! We need to reinvest in our infrastructure, look at combining regional services, improving our education and building around things that are not going to leave us for another economic incentive package. We need to reinvest and build around our universities, transportation networks, and fix our ability to attract business. —Raphael B. Johnson

"What experience do you have that makes you qualified for this position?"

... My greatest preparation for serving in a constructive role 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. ... —Saunteel Jenkins

"What skill set would you bring to City Council if elected and how would that benefit the city?"

I am the only certified public accountant running in the City Council race. I will bring more than 14 years of public accounting and client service experience, which includes creating budgets, reviewing contracts, analyzing financial results, performing financial as well as operational audits, and managing client expectations. This skill is sorely needed given the city's $300 million budget deficit and the council's responsibility to approve the budget. —Lisa Howze

"Do you believe that regional cooperation is important to the survival of Detroit?"

Detroit has lost over 1 million people since 1950. Currently, Detroit is reported to have around 850,000 people and the U.S. Census bureau is predicting that after the 2010, we will officially have 750,000 people. We will lose millions of dollars in funding from the federal government and possibly two to three congressional seats. 

I would like to form a regional collaboration committee that will work to establish cooperative policies between Detroit and the surrounding cities. This includes finding ways to synergize services and purchases to lower costs and promote a climate of shared vision for the region. Detroit is the most important city in Michigan and laying the framework for ideas such as a regional transportation authority to develop mass transit for the area, promotion of green manufacturing and a green lifestyle, effective use of technology and utilizing our international border and vast waterways to increase revenue in the region are all factors needed to move our region economically forward so that we can compete globally. —Fred Elliott Hall

(Candidate didn't state question, but went straight to this answer.)

For me as a candidate for City Council, we should have a clear and direct vision and purpose in addressing what direction we want this city to move. In the past, there have been master plans created for the city that never came to fruition. However, we need a clear and convincing mandate of where we are going and how we are going to get there. We cannot continue to talk about what we want to do, but we must develop a plan and a method of achieving our goals of employment, education, and quality of life. —Shelley Iris Foy

"Our problems in Detroit, the big ones: budget deficit, joblessness, city services etc, will take a long time to solve. If elected to City Council how will you begin helping improve the lives of Detroiters on Day 1?"

I have proposed a program I am calling WRAP Detroit. WRAP Detroit will be instituted and run by my council office out of the existing office budget. WRAP Detroit is a state of the art website and database that will identify businesses, individuals, non-profits and other organizations who demonstrate the ability to deliver services or aid to Detroiters in need. On the other side of the website, a database of individual Detroiters, who are in need of assistance, will be able to sign up and list their problem and the website will automatically pair them with the appropriate business, individual or organization. Detroiters who do not have Internet access will be able to call my office and my staff will enter their information for them and walk them through the process. ... This is what a city council member's office should look like; it should be a clearinghouse for delivering services and solving problems. With this initiative in place you won't hear the excuse that these problems are the mayor's problems. I want Detroiters to know that if they have a problem they can come to me, and I will do everything I can to solve their issue. —Jai-Lee Dearing 

"Why are you running?"

The answer is that I love this city even though it sometimes it may sometimes feels like it doesn't love me back. The love is still worth fighting for. —Kenneth V. Cockrel, Jr. 

"What was the most significant, life changing event in your life?

My answer would be to describe an incident that happened to me more than 25 years ago in Hillsboro, Kan., where I attended college for three years. During my second year there I was charged, arrested, tried and acquitted of a crime that I not only did not commit but could not have committed because I was out of town more than two to three hours away from school for the weekend. As a result of that incident I decided not to pursue a career in medicine but instead pursued a legal career. It was during that period of time that I began to understand the precariousness of life as a black man in America and I developed a stronger resolve to make a difference in my community. —David Jonathan Cross

"Explain why you are seeking a seat on the Detroit City Council?"

Growing up in the city that I love, my parents instilled in me a strong work ethic and the importance of serving my family, neighbors and community. I believe that is why at a very young age I knew I wanted to be a Detroit Police Officer. I realized that goal and spent 26 years in service to my fellow citizens, but still I feel there is much left to be done. I want to be part of the team that turns the city around and I am confident that my leadership skills, collaborative ability and work ethic will be a key component in accomplishing this mission. —Gary A. Brown

"Why should voters choose me?"

The answer is I've been a public servant already, I didn't just show up and decide I want to serve the people. I've put my life and job on the line for the betterment of Detroit. The situation we have is urgent and there's not time for people who just need a job or have an agenda. I've shown leadership when I spoke out against corruption and got fired for it. I'm the only candidate in this race whose street is blighted by 20 vacant homes, the only candidate in this race who's been a victim of crime four times. I know first hand the concerns, the anger and frustration of my neighbors and most other residents because I live among them. Yes, we all live in the city; the difference is while they moved away I stayed right in the hood. That matters. If Detroit is ever going to get better we need people who've actually paid some dues, spend their day among the people and will go to the council table with the people's agenda. Because that's the only agenda that matters —John K. Bennett

"What is your most innovative idea to change Detroit?"

My answer would be: I plan to engage Detroiters in ways they never have been. We only do Angel's Night volunteering once a year. This is an underuse of our best resource — Detroiters. I plan to spearhead an effort to take back our neighborhoods at least once a month with a more organized use of our block clubs, precinct delegates, churches and other groups. This would severely reduce the opportunity for crime (and, therefore, crime). I also plan to have part of my staff walking the streets of Detroit everyday. It will be the Pugh council office street team. Their goal: Engage Detroiters, sign them up for our monthly "take-backs," provide useful information and promote our excellent website ( Our website will be user-friendly and interactive, as well as updated daily. We also plan to knock on doors and canvass a different neighborhood every week (in the same manner we did during the campaign). The goal of the on-going neighborhood outreach will be to reach out to residents and be present (which is a constant criticism of elected officials — they are largely absent from neighborhoods). I would also have dinner once a week with a different Detroit family to hear, first-hand, what's going on in their neighborhood and offer solutions. There are so many other innovative ideas I have planned, but we don't have enough space on this questionnaire to fit them all in. —Charles Pugh

(Candidate didn't state question, but went straight to this answer.)

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. —James Tate 

"What are you proudest of in your role as a public servant?"

I am proudest of my role to help citizens address and resolve heart-wrenching crises, as well as my role in helping young people gain access to thousands of summer jobs annually. Also, I have helped dozens of young people obtain scholarships to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and I have helped facilitate opportunities for two young Detroiters to earn their medical degrees with free tuition and housing at the Latin American Medical School in Cuba with their commitment to provide no-fee service to the needy upon their return to Detroit. —JoAnn Watson

Complete Candidate Questionnaires:

Alberta Tinsley-Talabi

Andre Spivey

Brenda Jones

Charles Pugh

David Jonathan Cross

Fred Elliott Hall

Gary Brown

Jai-Lee Dearing

James Tate

JoAnn Watson

John Bennett

Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr.

Kwame Kenyatta

Lisa Howze

Mohamed Okdie

Raphael B. Johnson

Saunteel Jenkins

Shelley Iris Foy

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or [email protected]