Dispatches from Council, February 25th 2014


1)    PUBLIC COMMENT-The floor was opened up for public comment. The first notable comment was given by a leader in the Brush Park community, a very-well put together woman who commanded the attention of council better than any public commenter I have seen so far. She used her public comment as a way to introduce herself to the council. She reminded council that in the important development decisions about Brush park community leaders like her must be involved. The second public comment, by a self-described concerned citizen, jumped from point-to-point, mashing together concerns about the price of the new LED lights with intimations about the possible sinister motivations behind a $200,000 donation DTE is giving to the city. It was an illustrative contrast as to how the tool of public comment can be used. The council was responsive and attentive to the first woman and visibly zoned out for the second. The default of the council seems to be to dismiss public comments as venting from disgruntled citizens. Anything that one does to give off even a hint of the fed-up-suspicious-citizen vibe (questioning shadowy corporate interests, using an outraged or indignant tone, bringing up evil Illitch etc.) cannot help, but identify you in the minds of the council with the parade of angry, blowing-off-steam types that they see at every community meeting and council session. It’s a pity because a lot of the questions about corporate interest or Mike Illitch are good questions. They just need to be framed in a way that is collaborative and inquisitive, not suspicious and outraged.

2)    MUNICIPAL CONTRACTS – Several were approved. Particularly block grant federal funding for emergency housing services for homeless or between homes Detroiters. There was discussion of the lateness of the funding (it was technically last year’s money).

3)      SHINOLA- The discussion than turned to new Shinola public watch project. Shinola will be erecting public clocks all across the city. Member Leland moved to discuss the clocks. He mentioned the possibility of asking Shinola for a fee, given that this was essentially free advertising. There was then a pretty extensive discussion about whether council could even do that given that the actual land that the first Shinola clock is going to be on is not technically city land (it is held by an authority). The merits of the project were discussed, as was the core notion that this is a gift to provide a public service. Saunteel Jenkins, who seems to be in favor of accepting the Shinola clocks free of charge, wanted to investigate further what the current status of the law is regarding the acceptance of gifts by the city that may have some commercial benefit for the giver. Jenkins and others did not want to set a precedent where by entities could disguise potentially self-interested branding or marketing ploys as “gifts” to the city without the council’s approval. Jenkins asked LPD to investigate the matter and report back. In the case of the Shinola clocks the general sentiment was that the clocks themselves were providing a legitimate public function and that any public clock was going to have the name of the maker on it somewhere, so it was all OK. 

4)    ARENA NEIGHBORHOOD ADVISORY COUNCIL-  A condition of the new arena development is the creation of a Neighborhood Advisory Council, an entity charged with being the voice of the community in the development process. It’s proposed that the “NAC” will be comprised of 25% council appointees and 75% elected neighborhood leaders. The issue being discussed in council was how to define the geographic “neighborhood” for purposes of this advisory council  (i.e. where will you have to live in order to vote for reps on it). It was originally an exact quarter-mile radius around the proposed arena site. It was then changed, so that that the zones borders would follow streets. (the original area was basically a doughnut incorporating parts of some blocks). Member Benson was proposing further changes to include several blocks in the Northeast corner of the proposed area. He was making the changes to include U-Michigan’s center on Woodward and Whole Foods. The reason he gave was a desire to improve the talent pool for possible appointees. Everyone agreed. Before the motion to alter the borders of the neighborhood was approved, Member Cushingberry brought up a point he brings up about once a meeting. The point is about the duplication and proliferation of multiple layers of government. His question was about the utility of a “Neighborhood Advisory Council” in the face of the new charter-mandated CACs. Cushingberry’s view seems to be that the CACs and the various other new forms of community input are in some places redundant and that there existence clutters government. He was rebuffed by Member Lopez who made the point that a Neighborhood Advisory Council for the arena development makes perfect sense as the CACs do not exist at present and the creation of NAC is suggested by state law in the case of a development this large. The disagreement did raise some interesting questions about the development of CACs and their role in government. It also brought up a flurry of frustration about the fact that the CAC creation is behind schedule.

5)     COUNCIL BUSINESS: PARADES, DTE DONATION, RENEWABLE ENERGY- The council went on to approve several pieces of business. The first of which was a large-scale renewable energy approval. It was approved under a state law requiring a certain percentage of municipal energy to come from renewable sources. The nuts and bolts were a little hazy, but it was nice to see even a cursory discussion of renewable energy and an approval of its use. Next the council moved on to some parade and event approvals and finally the approval of the purchase of a large trailer and the acceptance of a donation from DTE. The details of this “donation” as it was termed, were not discussed.

6)    PRIVILEGED REPORT- If you are looking for high drama the 13th floor of the Coleman Young municipal Center at 10 AM on Tuesday is not usually your best bet.  But this Tuesday you would have been in luck. The hubaloo centered around a Mayor’s Office request to see a Council report that had been designated “privileged and confidential.” The report had been given to the inspector general the week before. The Mayor’s Office was interested and wanted to lay eyes on it. There was a very interesting, slightly tense, and pretty drawn out exchange between Mr. Whitaker, Member Jones, and Member Cushingberry that tried to dance around the content of the report, while discussing the possible motives for the Inspector General’s question. Mr. Whitaker at one point stopped the back and forth by saying, “I think we are all reading minds here, and that’s not a good idea.” Again by City Council standards, in which the day’s excitement generally stems from a particularly well-thought out question about a zoning requirement, this was edge-of-your-seat stuff. It seems the report is about the water authority, but that’s about it that the exchange mentioned in terms of content. The exchange itself raised legal questions about confidentiality council reports and also brought up the chance for a potential clash with the Mayor’s Office.

7)     CAMERAS IN BUSES- Member Jones brought it to the attention of the council that 50 DDOT buses were scheduled to get cameras in the coming weeks. After that initial roll-out, 300 more buses are scheduled to be equipped with cameras.

8)    MARATHON REFINERY HIRING- Member Jenkins brought up serious issues about the Marathon refinery follow through on promises made to hire Detroiters in exchange for tax abatements. It seems as though Marathon is not keeping to their promises of hiring Detroit workers. They plead lack of skills in the Detroit working population. 30 of 600 workers hired have been Detroiters. They have pointed to their apprenticeship and training programs of evidence of their commitment, but Member Jenkins and several other council members were skeptical as to how effective these programs were. This is a very important issue that we should all keep appraised of going forward. Tax abatements like the ones given to Marathon are nothing short of giveaways if the promises made to the community are disregarded. But the Marathon refinery issue goes deeper than that as the refinery itself is having a seriously environmental impact in the surrounding communities. It’s not just breaking promises; it’s impacting the health of our citizens. It is the job of our elected officials to hold entities like Marathon accountable.

9)    JENKINS BRINGS UP INDEPENDENCE OF COUNCIL- The real highlight of the day was an impassioned comment given by Member Jenkins on the Plan of Adjustment and Mayor’s Office Proposal to continue to strip away City Council experts on the Planning Commission. Jenkins argued, very convincingly, that this further attempt to take-away the city-council’s ability to analyze planning proposals independent of the Mayor’s Office threatened to disrupt the basic checks and balances of City government. Council’s budget has already been cut to the bone. It is imperative that council is still furnished with the tools and expertise to form independent positions on the complex issues that come before them. Member Jenkins and Jones both pledged to fight this proposal. We should all track their progress.

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