A Not So Common Council

This morning I’m appearing before the Detroit City Council as one of the Directors of the newly minted Public Lighting Authority.  This Authority was born during the legislative tsunami that was the  2012 lame duck session of the Michigan legislature.  At the same time the Republican majority was greasing “Right to Work” legislation to the Governor’s desk with no public hearings and precious little debate they were also doing something to help Detroit.

At night much of Detroit is dark.  It’s estimated that nearly half of Detroit’s 88,000 streetlights are out.  Let’s temper this often quoted stat with some context.  Detroit has 88,000 streetlights because it once had almost 2 million citizens.  With a current population of 700,000 and some change a “right-sized” number of lights is a much smaller.  But those numbers mean nothing to people who come home to dark streets which invite crime.  I’m hoping we can have some dramatic results in a few months.  I’ll be writing more about my experience on this authority in the future.

City CouncilIt’s been a long time since I’ve had to appear before the City Council.  It was a regular part of my job as an Executive Assistant to Mayor Coleman Young. I never looked forward to it.  There’s always tension between the executive and legislative branches of government.  That’s the whole point of checks and balances. But city council members then and now were never above asking long leading “gotch-ya” questions. You know – cheap shots.

Historically the City Council was elected from individual districts known as wards.  But at the turn of the 20th century a new charter was adopted that provided for the election of 9 members of a “Common Council” from the city at large.  This was unusual for a city the size of Detroit.  It reflected then “progressive” attitudes that it was too easy for incompetent individuals to get elected from a smaller ward.  A city should be run like a business in which the common council was more like a board of directors and the Mayor like the chairman of the board.  Familier argument?  It was thought that the day to day business was best conducted by commissions appointed by the Mayor.  There was a Recreation Commission, a Transit Commission, An Art’s Commission and so on.  The people who manged the departments were selected by the commissions rather than the Mayor and through the years became part of a civil services system that largely made them immune from political pressure but also politically unaccountable.  This “weak-Mayor” from of government persisted into the 1970’s

In 1973 the city adopted a new charter which abolished the commissions and created a “strong-Mayor” form of government.  All senior staff and department heads would be appointed by and serve as the pleasure of the Mayor.  Oh, at the same election Coleman A. Young became Detroit’s first African American mayor.  He understood what it meant to be a strong mayor.

Bernie Klein served on the Charter Commission which drafted the 1973 Charter. Bernie was Budget director in the administration of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh.  He subsequently served as a political science professor at the University of Michigan, Dearborn.  Bernie has a wicked wit.  In giving a presentation on the proposed new charter he noted that the name of the Common Council was being changed back to the City Council.  “I always wondered why Detroit’s legislative body was called ‘Common’.  I found out the first time I had to appear before them.”

There was a former speakeasy on the corner of Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard called Pinkys.  Bernie said he arranged to have a plaque placed in an upstairs room that said (and I paraphrase) “The City Charter Commission held secret meetings in this room and drafted a city charter that made secret meetings illegal.”  Pinkey’s met the wrecking ball.  I hope someone saved the plaque.

A city council elected entirely at large is running its final lap. In 2012 Detroiters adopted a new charter electing 7 city council members from individual districts and 2 city wide.  Pubilus’ Director Vince Keenan rightly calls this year’s election a “once in a century opportunity”.  We shall see.

I’m looking forward to working with the current City Council to turn on some lights.  We should have a productive discussion this morning.


Anyone interested in Detroit in the progressive era would find Melvin G. Holli’s “Reform in Detroit, Hazen S. Pingree and Urban Politics” (Greenwood Press, 1969) a very good read.