Governance in Detroit

The Dave Bing honeymoon is definitely over.  The Detroit area media have been beating up on the Mayor a lot lately, and for good reason.  Among his troubles:

  • High turnover among key personnel, including Deputy Mayor Saul Green, much of it blamed on Karen Dumas.
  • Bad messaging which, again, has been laid in part at Dumas’ feet.  The Mayor hasn’t helped himself with his recent whining about the business community, either.
  • Mismanagement of the police department, namely the scandal surrounding DPD’s crime lab.  Since the mayor fired former police chief Warren Evans last year, it’s hard for him to dismiss Evans’ replacement Ralph Godbee, even though Godbee deserves the same fate.  If you ask me, Godbee was more egregious in his failing than Evans, whose main sin was to piss off Bing by catching him blindsided with his media whoring.
  • There’s also been high-level scandals about spending in departments including Public Health, Human Services, & the library system.  The latter, of course, isn’t under the mayor’s purview.  Let’s set aside the fact that Detroit should not even have its own department of public health.  And I’m skeptical that the city should have any staff or budget for human services beyond the minimum required to facilitate the dispersal of state and federal grant dollars to nonprofits where needed (and even that provides ample opportunities for corruption).
  • Battles over the budget with City Council.  This is where Bing is at his most mystifying.  The corruption scandals in the health and human services departments provide the perfect excuse to slash them, if not shut them down outright.  And yet the mayor is keeping them intact, as well as subsidies to various museums including the DIA and the Wright Museum, while threatening cuts to police staffing.  This is nuts.  Public safety is the absolute last thing the mayor should be cutting if he wants to keep residents and businesses in the city.

But in another way, it’s a good sign these issues are dominating the headlines.  It means that they are finally getting around to more of the corruption that has been happening under the radar during the Kilpatrick administration.  When Kilpatrick and Christine Beatty were in the Mayor’s office, and Monica Conyers was president of City Council, with Barbara-Rose Collins, Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, and Martha Reeves as her merry band of fools, the Detroit papers were too busy covering their blatant idiocy, incompetence, and criminality to allocate much in the way of investigative resources to anything else.  Now that both the mayor’s office and city council are occupied by officials who are without question both more intelligent and more responsible, the papers have to dig a little deeper to find juicy leads.

And it is another sign that the seemingly inexorable decline in Detroit’s standards and expectations of its ruling class has finally reversed itself.  Those standards and expectations bottomed out around 2005, when Detroit voters re-elected Kilpatrick as well as the infamous slate of council members that presided over his second term.  I decided to leave Detroit to go back to school in Ann Arbor at the very lowest point, in early 2008, when both MonCon & Kilpatrick had been charged with numerous felonies, but had yet to be compelled to resign their positions.  Not only did it disturb me that my elected officials might be crooks, as was becoming increasingly apparent.  What was more demoralizing was to realize that a majority of my fellow residents, or at least those who bothered to turn out for elections, were being played for fools, and were either too stupid to see it, or in too much denial to admit it.  Choosing to live in Detroit requires all kinds of sacrifices.  It’s hard enough to make those sacrifices when you at least have competent and honest leaders setting the example; but when you don’t even have that, why bother?

It’s fair to assume that most of the city’s population loss in the 2000s happened during the Kilpatrick administration.  Crime, economic opportunities, and bad schools all played a role in these individual decisions either to leave or — just as importantly — not to move in.  Those were the factors that got a lot of attention in the aftermath of the Census release this spring.  In the rush to identify the causes of the city’s 27% population loss, everybody seemed to have forgotten that that for most of the decade, it was run by people who were generally acknowledged, by everyone except Detroit voters, to be crooks and nitwits.  In spring 2008 Detroit was seen by the rest of the country as a laughingstock; in spring 2011 it is given respect as a tragic parable, having recovered much of its dignity through its steps toward reform.

(Note that Detroit’s population decline is not simply a result of people leaving, but of others choosing not to come.  We forget this a lot.  Indeed, it’s likely that disproportionately more people left the city at the end of the decade, having lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis, freeing homeowners to make a move to the suburbs they might have been considering for years before.  On the flip side, we could have a greater influx than before as well, of people who might have considered Detroit previously, but who were discouraged by the corruption and toxic politics in the years prior to the 2009 elections.  While I don’t have numbers to back these hypotheses, I offer them as a reminder of how migration is lumpier, multivariate, and more complex than media analysis often allows.)

I applaud that the Free Press, the Detroit News, the Metro Times, and other news organizations continue to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire, no matter who is in office.  They shouldn’t give him a free pass.  But it’s near-miraculous to see how far Detroit has come in terms of governance in only three short years.  Let’s take solace where we can and give credit where it’s due.  Let’s remember population numbers and budget shortfalls are lagging indicators.  The soul-searching of spring 2011 follows as a consequence of voters’ poor decisions at the ballot box in 2001 and 2005.   I am cautiously optimistic that the common sense voters showed in 2009, and the better performance of Detroit’s officials since then, will reap benefits in Detroit’s American Community Survey results in the 2010s.


One response to “Governance in Detroit

  1. Pingback: The Rochelle Collins lawsuit: Spoke too soon? | Motown To Tree Town

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