Council Session April 29th

  1. DETROIT EMPLOYMENT SOLUTIONS COPORATION- Detroit Employment Growth Solutions presented in the formal session last Tuesday. The testimony was informative and compelling. The main message of the presentation was the DESC was far better off as an independent non-for-profit than it had been under the umbrella of city government. The “placement numbers” i.e. the amount of people that DESC helped place into part-time or full time positions were close to 9,000, up from 1,500-2,000 just a couple years ago. It was, in some ways an ,“I told you so moment” for DESC, and many of the councilors who had opposed the move of the DESC out of city auspices stepped up and admitted that they had been in the wrong. DESC has accomplished this turn around by cutting overhead costs, opening itself to private funding, and building a more accessible network of service centers out in neighborhoods where people can actually reach them. There are still areas where DESC admitted it can do better. Its youth efforts, while successful, are hamstrung by a decline in funding. DESC also noted that it struggles to reach youth who are already out of the system, in the streets and on the corners, and bring them back into the work force.
  2. PUBLIC COMMENT/THE PLAN OF ADJUSTMENT – One of the incredibly impressive and at times incredibly frustrating times in your standard Tuesday, City Council meeting is public comment. For those who don’t know, a designated portion of each council meeting is set aside for public comment as a forum for anyone, literally any citizen, to come and express their views to council. People sometimes use the platform to petition council about a personal problem, a house on my block is abandoned, my application has not been approved yet etc. sometimes folks use it to give expertise or opinions on a particular topic that the council will be discussing, and a certain select group use it as a personal platform on which to promote their own work or give their two cents on a wide range of matters. It is a fantastic example of direct democracy and access. Anyone can have their voice heard, anyone can have for a moment, a seat at the table. There have been times in the several months that I have been following council closely in which public comment does really influence decisionmaking and discussion. On the other hand the entirety of our very busy city council  sits down every week and listens to a couple of the same people give their opinions on everything from the bankruptcy to blight, to the state of our schools,  in long sometimes suspicious,  sometimes accusatory 2 minute long speeches. In my mind, this is a worthwhile price to pay for the truly remarkable fact that anyone can address council on a given Tuesday. But if I was a busy city councilor, who had to sit through these verbal assaults week after week, I might feel differently. This week, public comment was being used as it was intended, as a forum for the people to speak. In what was obviously a planned effort, person after person got up to testify to council to vote no on the plan of adjustment. Now, it is unclear whether council will be voting on the plan of adjustment or not, so it is unclear how useful the asks for them reject it were. But it was an impressive display of direct action nonetheless.  Having council conceptually understand that his plan will hurt pensioners is one thing, being asked from the bottom of your heart to resist the plan by a 67 year old lady who is caring for her sick husband with medical insurance that might be taken away is quite another.
  3. SPECIAL ASSESMENT DISTRICT – The next order of business was passing an ordinance proposed by Councilman James Tate for a special assessment zone for the citizens of Grandmont-Rosedale. The concept of a special assessment zone is that the citizens of a certain area or neighborhood have a special tax levied on the property owners in the districtthat then goes to pay for services in the neighborhood. There are several such business zones in Detroit, in which property and business owners pay into a fund  that in turns pays for increased security, trash collection, etc., but this is the first such residential zone. Tate has had it in the works for a very long time, first pushing for it back in 2012. The ordinance will allow citizens of Grandmont-Rosedale to ensure that their neighborhood remains relatively stable and that services such as mosquito clearing, snow pick up, and community policing are well funded and carried out properly.
  4. BELLE ISLE POLICING- The big story of last council came as the session was winding down, when Council president Brenda Jones asked the City Clerk to recount a story that  she had told her earlier. It was certainly an unusual request, and the room perked up a bit. The Clerk recounted the story of her being pulled over for going some 4-5 miles over the speed limit. She said that the state officer who pulled her over, told her that they were trying to keep the “riff-raff” off the island. Brenda Jones then disclosed that Mayor Duggan had been pulled over for speeding on the island. Other council members were quick to jump in, pointing out that they had received complaints from constituents about draconian policing on the island, with officers stopping folks for minor infractions and then running their licenses and arresting them. The number “500 arrests” was thrown around, which set off a maelstrom of comments, anger, and analysis from council. The specter of a worst-case scenario for state control seemed very real on Tuesday morning at the table. Councilmember Jenkins was as heated as I have ever seen her in her anger at the state officers and their tactics. She brought up the dangers and capacity for overreach when you have state police “driving from 1-2 hours away” coming into the city and bringing their own biases and lack of comfort with the local population to bear on Detroit residents. She was heartfelt and passionate when she said that we needed officers on Belle Isle who know, “not every man in a hoodie is a criminal.” It was interesting how different council members dived in and gave their commentary on the situation, refracting the issue through their own personal viewpoints. Member Castaneda-Lopez sought to place the Belle Isle issues into a larger narrative of profiling and prejudice citing immigrants in Southwest and sexism. Member Cushingberry was also heated and placed the Belle Isle issue into one that was not merely to do with state control or state police, but police in general saying the Detroit police department was practically an “occupying army.”   Member Tate was reasoned and cautious. He said that he was very disturbed by the reports, but wanted to see the numbers before he got to the level of outrage, (the 500 number does seem to have been high. State Police are reporting much closer to 200). The state police crack down is ominous to say the least, even it is not quite as bad as it was being treated in council. The notion that any Detroiter would feel scared to go into the great public park in their own city for fear of harassment by the police is unconscienable. Member Jones announced that she was meeting with State Officials to help address the issue sometime later this week. We can only hope that the meeting is productive and that we can work towards a Belle Isle that is safe and inviting for all.
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