Fixing the unbroken

Oct 28, 1998 at 12:00 am

When Detroit voters go to the polls next week they will be asked whether they want to eliminate a layer of public oversight that has never been implemented.

Confused? You should be.

City charter revisions approved by Detroit voters in 1996 included a provision to establish so-called Community Advisory Councils that would provide a direct link between distinct geographic areas of the city and specific City Council members. The city was to be divided into nine districts, with an individual council member assigned to answer directly to each district. Eight community members would be on each council.

According to the new charter, such a structure would "allow for the first time direct structured access to City Council members and access to factual information regarding specific community issues."

As envisioned, the CACs would increase accountability in a city where City Council members are elected on an at-large basis instead of as representatives of a specific district.

The rub is that most Detroiters remained unaware that these councils should have been established, and the City Council should have put them in operation. Instead, the City Council voted unanimously in July to place the proposal to eliminate CACs on the ballot.

"The Citizen Advisory Councils were to be a more far-reaching city version of the Citizen District Councils (CDC) that were set up by the state," says Jeffery Blaine, who was executive director of the city's Charter Revision Commission.

But CDCs, explains Blaine, provide oversight only in areas of the city undergoing development.

In addition, the mayor and City Council have recently come under fire from critics who complained that recommendations from the two newest CDCs -- the Graimark CDC and Waterfront Reclamation and Casino Development CDC -- were virtually ignored when they advised against major redevelopment projects.

Joyce Moore, a former Charter Revision Commissioner, supports removing the CAC mandate from the city charter.

"It would decentralize city government too much," she contends, arguing instead that it would be better to operate Citizen District Councils "the way they were intended ... with city government's financial backing."

According to the ballot language, in exchange for eliminating Community Action Councils citizens are being offered the promise that they will be replaced by an ordinance that "codifies citizen participation in city government."

If that sounds vague, well, it is. The replacement ordinance hasn't been finished, which means voters will be buying a pig in a poke if they vote in favor of this proposal.