Dispatches from Council February 18th, 2014

Introduction: The council meeting was similar in tone and procedure to last week’s meeting with two notable exceptions. The first was that the valued and vocal Saunteel Jenkins was not present, the second was that the first part of the session was entirely taken up by a presentation on M-1 light rail.


Points of Interest


1)    The M-1 Light Rail presentation dominated the beginning portion of the meeting. The professional developer types were very impressive and put together. They were led by Roger Penske the chairman of the M-1 Board. They portrayed the light rail project as a driver for economic growth and urban renewal, both in the construction jobs it would bring in and the long-term impact it would have on the viability of the Woodward corridor as a commercial destination. They were well prepared and drew heavily on case-studies and evidence drawn from the deployment of light rail in other similar sized cities (for example Denver). They raised the possibility that the Woodward Ave. light rail might be just the beginning of a larger light rail network in Detroit, noting that the federal government was much more likely to fund extensions to existing light rail networks given once their viability had been proven. The council’s response was generally positive. Councilmember Spivey asked several well-framed questions. He inquired into the details of the security arrangements for the light rail. He inquired into the weather-durability of the system and under what circumstances it would have to be shut down. He also asked about the Thanksgiving parade. The presenters addressed the security concerns with a rather standard answer about a public-private security partnership between Illyitch cameras, Wayne State Police, and the Detroit Police Department. They then turned to weather durability, pointing out that the Light Rail would be a more reliable option than typical vehicular transport in such pipe-crackingly cold winters as this one. Lastly, the representatives from the Light Rail project ensured the council that they had undergone extensive talks with the planners of the Thanksgiving day parade, and that it would be able to go as usual (hurray!). Member Benson asked a pointed question about how the construction would play out and how it would affect the fledging grouping of businesses along Woodward Avenue. The M-1 representatives waffled a bit on this, ensuring the council that they had “looked into a lot of ways” to ensure that the construction would have a minimal impact on commercial traffic. All in all the presentation was well thought out and persuasive, but it was not really challenged in any real way by the council, perhaps because any serious objections had already been worked out in committee. The floor was then open to public comment. As is usually the case with public comment, the commentators could not be said to be a representative sampling of the city of Detroit. They were those hardened, admirable, involved, sometimes a little batty, citizens who take the time to actually go to the public forums and 10 AM open council meetings and say something. Although the council clearly dismissed them out of hand as irate and irrelevant two of them actually raised some interesting points. The elderly man was arguing that the entire “light rail” project was a shiny, on-paper-impressive, waste of money. He argued that for far cheaper a new fleet of express buses, with reliable service could be utilized on the Woodward corridor and that the balance of the project’s money could be spent on the desperate state of the rest of the cities transport infrastructure including the repaving of streets, fixing of potholes, and the improved reliability of DDOT.  The second public commentator had one simple question: why does the city of Detroit continue to do business with the Illitch’s (they are involved with the M-1 rail) when they reportedly owe 2 million in back taxes. The council did not respond to the comments and that concluded the discussion of the M-1 line. I think that the general points raised by the public comment were worthwhile. It was interesting that the high-ups of the M-1 were not required to stick around and listen (the presenters and their support staff left the moment they were finished) and that the council did not respond. The M-1 Rail is an interesting and potentially beneficial project, but it is not without question marks. I apologize for the lengthy discussion of this one piece of council business, but I think it’s important for Declare Detroit do have a detailed picture of how the council makes decisions on big issues and what routes are open to have an influence on those decisions. 

2)    The council engaged in it’s usual approval of contracts from everything ranging from providing services to the homeless to cranes for infrastructure to natural disaster readiness. It is difficult to follow the approval of these contracts in the open meeting setting because the real work on them goes on committee and almost all of them are approved without discussion. I am getting better at following and expect to continue to improve as I continue to acquaint myself with the procedural protocols and committee structure of the council. The most interesting and potentially important contract discussion of the day was to do with Detroit’s fleet of garbage trucks, their auction, and the potential farming out of garbage services.

3)    The Detroit Police Department is getting helicopter infra-red capability and infra-red goggles. There was a short presentation by some of the higher up’s noting that this will greatly increase DPD’s ability to conduct operations and patrols at night. The request is in the process of being approved.

4)    Eastern Market is renovating Shed # 5 and was asking for a request to be expedited without going through committee. The renovations include creating a new co-op commercial kitchen out of which new Detroit food businesses will be able to be incubated. The ask was made because of an expiration in federal and state funding tied to the council’s approval of the request. Eastern Market Corporation presented and were not exactly solid on the details of why they needed the request to be expedited. The council, and Ms. Jones, was very close to denying the request, arguing that having requests bypass committee vetting was not a good precedent to set. Eventually the request was approved. But it goes to show how presentation to the council can matter a great deal.

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