There’s no glory in revising the Detroit City Charter

There’s no glory in revising the Detroit City Charter

There is little enthusiasm for a Detroit City Charter Commission right now, and there is little enthusiasm for changing the charter, as we just did that in 2012. That's when the policy to elect city council by districts came along, giving slightly more power to council.

Now we're at it again, not due to any crises in government that have to be addressed, but because the calendar says we should. As it turns out, the 2012 charter changes were out of sequence. A 2018 look at the charter is one that's mandated by the charter. We seem so unexcited about the Charter Commission that there were not enough candidates available to run a primary back in August. Instead, all 15 candidates were moved on to the general election, where nine of them will become charter commission members. 

There's no glory in revising the city charter, and potential huge headaches. You make a change and somebody is not going to like it. Still, something like a charter commission is where someone could make their entry into electoral politics, create relationships, get educated on how the city works, and move into a political career in the future. It looks good on a candidate's resume later on.

Detroit's old political class has mostly disappeared. The charter commission candidates are those trying to become part of that next political generation. One reason that conclusion can be reached is that a big chunk of the candidates are relatively young, in their 20s, and with fairly thin resumes. Youth is not a disqualifier for the commission, it just happens to underline that this is entry-level politics. And it is a very good thing that we have young people who want to be in politics.

So who are these candidates and what do they have to say?

The Detroit Free Press ran a story on Sunday with the headline "Detroit City Charter commission candidates in their own words." None of their words really made them stand out from the crowd as they discussed things like "strengthen definition to avoid ambiguity," as Chase L. Cantrell did. Sure, that's really going to drive people to the polls. However, Cantrell did have one eye-catching comment: He called for limiting a mayor to three terms.

That's an interesting concept. Limiting the mayor to three terms raises the question of Mike Duggan, who is in the middle of his second term with no significant opposition figure in sight. The only mayor in recent history to eclipse two terms is Coleman Young, who managed five terms before he gave it up. Term limits are the rallying cry when someone you hate has a hold on power and you can't unseat them at the ballot box.

By and large I don't believe term limits have served our state legislature well. It's OK that the governor has to get out every eight years, but the people in the legislature and their staffs who actually run government on a day-to-day basis should not be pushed out. That leaves the lobbyists as the only ones who know how government runs, and their loyalties are not to the voters.

Cantrell is an attorney who is executive director of an organization called Building Community Value, which focuses on vacant commercial space outside the downtown and Midtown areas.

The only other statement that really stood out was from Taylor Harrell, who claims to be "focused" on changing the residency requirement to run for office to four years — currently it's just one. That's another issue that seems aimed at Duggan, who moved from Livonia to Detroit in a timely fashion to run for mayor. Harrell is a research director for Citizen Detroit, an organization co-founded by former city council member Sheila Cockrel, and was a congressional intern in 2016 for Rep. Yvette D. Clark, D-N.Y. This definitely looks like the resume of a budding political career.

Quincy Jones, executive director of the Osborn Community Alliance, seems to be another political wannabe — he unsuccessfully ran for the state House in 2016. He may be good at it if community empowerment is part of his game, however his Freep statement is focused on creating more ways for people to pay their property taxes.

To me, a charter commission needs all the grassroots community people it can find. So someone like Laura A. Hughes who has connections to the Ruth Ellis Center gets a nod for that, as well as Nicole Small, a west side community activist.

I like Richard Mack because he is a labor-side employment lawyer and Byron Osbern because he is an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers electrician. The working people's perspective needs a seat at the table, and this is particularly important when organized labor is under siege everywhere. Detroit is becoming more of an entrepreneurial city for the good of most of us. However, the workers who built this city and continue as a major entity need support from our governing organizations.

The one person running who gives me pause is Michael R. Griffie, a Butzel Long attorney with a big history of working in the charter school system: Cornerstone Schools and National Heritage Academies. I'm no fan of charter schools draining public monies and producing no better results — and I don't particularly trust anyone from the administrative end of that world.

The entire group is mostly uninspiring. Not that they are bad people — I mostly don't know that and generally we mostly don't know that about the people we vote for. And you've got to start somewhere. However, as nondescript as this crowd is, it is possible that they could be writing the document that sets the rules for how things are done in Detroit.

They probably won't, and anything they come up with will have to be OK'd by voters in 2020.

Even so, it will be interesting to see who can garner votes. That will be the testing ground for who among these wannabes is going to move up and challenge in future elections and more high-profile races.

Updated 1:18 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 25: This column last week incorrectly stated Detroiters would vote whether to revise the Detroit city charter in November; voters will only be choosing the charter commissioners.

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About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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