Detroit: Organized for failure

Rosslyn Smith
Read these descriptions of the structure of city government in Detroit.   I find it a bit reminiscent of the bloated  organization charts that were in place in the American auto industry during the era when it foisted cars such as the Pinto, its big brother the Mustang II, the Gremlin and the Vega -- to name just a few -- upon consumers.   This is not surprising as Detroit's system went into effect in 1974.  The cynic in me suspects that at the time it was adopted both the corporations headquartered in Detroit and the labor unions pushed for this system because each thought they would be able to control the government of a city that lacked political accountability by residential neighborhoods.  The unions won and now everybody loses.

The Mayor

Detroit has a "strong mayoral" system, with the mayor approving departmental appointments. The council approves budgets, but the mayor is not obligated to adhere to any earmarking. The city clerk supervises elections and is formally charged with the maintenance of municipal records. City ordinances and substantially large contracts must be approved by the council.

The City Council

The Detroit City Council, one of the country's few full-time City legislative bodies, consists of nine (9) members elected at large for a four-year term. The City Council was first constituted as the legislative body of the City in 1824 (replacing a Board of Trustees) and was called the Common Council until July 1, 1974 - the effective date of Detroit's new City Charter.

The Council Divisions.

The City Council monitors the administration of City government and City departments to see that laws and programs are operating effectively and in the best interest of citizens.  Assisting in this task is a City Planning Commission appointed by City Council to advise on the social, physical and economic aspects of planning and development matters; a Research and Analysis Division to provide research and advice on matters requiring legislative action; and a Fiscal Analysis Division to research the fiscal implications of pending actions and advise on matters impacting the City budget.  The directors of all divisions are appointed by City Council. 

In short, in Detroit a nine member at-large full time city council appoints a large staff of bureaucrats to monitor what the line bureaucrats appointed by the mayor are doing to deliver city services.  If a citizen has a complaint about garbage not being picked up or the cops not responding to calls, where in such a system do they start their complaint process?   At least in Chicago when the garbage doesn't get picked up voters know where to first complain: The alderman's name is on garbage cans in every alley in his or her ward. Accountability for basic services is essential. A lot of cities which have ridiculously overpaid city employee and under funded pension plans have not seen the tremendous decline in city services that have occurred in Detroit.  This structure is most certainly one reason for this problem as it encourages passing the buck.   

At-large city councils have generally fallen by the wayside in recent decades because they offer few chances for minority representation by race and ethnicity the way ward systems do. Ironically, in Detroit those who wanted a government that could deliver, safe, clean streets, functioning schools and a thriving private sector economy became the ever shrinking minority.  As city services deteriorated those with the best financial prospects among all races and ethnicities were among the first to vote with their feet. With no focal point for opposition other than citywide elections, there was no opportunity for more responsible citizens to rally and turn things around. A downward spiral began. Soon the bureaucrats were running the place with only their own short term benefits in mind. 

Political leaders in an at-large system also tended to favor top down mega projects for the downtown area over developments dispersed across the city.  This can be seen beginning with the Renaissance Center in the 1970s -- the same time this system was put in place.  Without a reputation for good basic services, the predicted vibrant ring of mixed use properties around these downtown mega projects never fully materialized.  Business people staying at the "Ren Center" in the 1980s felt like they had been sent to Fort Apache: At sundown everything locked down and no one ventured outside until the next morning.  This showpiece project detracted from rather than added to Detroit's reputation.

Thus Detroit has not been able to emulate those cities that lost significant numbers of heavy manufacturing jobs from the 1970s until today but and replaced many of them with jobs in the service industries, in thriving retail centers and in light manufacturing.  These cities also replaced residential tax bases based on working class families by attracting significant numbers of affluent childless residents and empty nesters.  Such citizens demand quality services and expect accountable government -- at least in the short term.  Detroit hasn't been able to provide either.  A whole new form of city government must accompany the restructuring of its debt.

Read these descriptions of the structure of city government in Detroit.   I find it a bit reminiscent of the bloated  organization charts that were in place in the American auto industry during the era when it foisted cars such as the Pinto, its big brother the Mustang II, the Gremlin and the Vega -- to name just a few -- upon consumers.   This is not surprising as Detroit's system went into effect in 1974.  The cynic in me suspects that at the time it was adopted both the corporations headquartered in Detroit and the labor unions pushed for this system because each thought they would be able to control the government of a city that lacked political accountability by residential neighborhoods.  The unions won and now everybody loses.

The Mayor

Detroit has a "strong mayoral" system, with the mayor approving departmental appointments. The council approves budgets, but the mayor is not obligated to adhere to any earmarking. The city clerk supervises elections and is formally charged with the maintenance of municipal records. City ordinances and substantially large contracts must be approved by the council.

The City Council

The Detroit City Council, one of the country's few full-time City legislative bodies, consists of nine (9) members elected at large for a four-year term. The City Council was first constituted as the legislative body of the City in 1824 (replacing a Board of Trustees) and was called the Common Council until July 1, 1974 - the effective date of Detroit's new City Charter.

The Council Divisions.

The City Council monitors the administration of City government and City departments to see that laws and programs are operating effectively and in the best interest of citizens.  Assisting in this task is a City Planning Commission appointed by City Council to advise on the social, physical and economic aspects of planning and development matters; a Research and Analysis Division to provide research and advice on matters requiring legislative action; and a Fiscal Analysis Division to research the fiscal implications of pending actions and advise on matters impacting the City budget.  The directors of all divisions are appointed by City Council. 

In short, in Detroit a nine member at-large full time city council appoints a large staff of bureaucrats to monitor what the line bureaucrats appointed by the mayor are doing to deliver city services.  If a citizen has a complaint about garbage not being picked up or the cops not responding to calls, where in such a system do they start their complaint process?   At least in Chicago when the garbage doesn't get picked up voters know where to first complain: The alderman's name is on garbage cans in every alley in his or her ward. Accountability for basic services is essential. A lot of cities which have ridiculously overpaid city employee and under funded pension plans have not seen the tremendous decline in city services that have occurred in Detroit.  This structure is most certainly one reason for this problem as it encourages passing the buck.   

At-large city councils have generally fallen by the wayside in recent decades because they offer few chances for minority representation by race and ethnicity the way ward systems do. Ironically, in Detroit those who wanted a government that could deliver, safe, clean streets, functioning schools and a thriving private sector economy became the ever shrinking minority.  As city services deteriorated those with the best financial prospects among all races and ethnicities were among the first to vote with their feet. With no focal point for opposition other than citywide elections, there was no opportunity for more responsible citizens to rally and turn things around. A downward spiral began. Soon the bureaucrats were running the place with only their own short term benefits in mind. 

Political leaders in an at-large system also tended to favor top down mega projects for the downtown area over developments dispersed across the city.  This can be seen beginning with the Renaissance Center in the 1970s -- the same time this system was put in place.  Without a reputation for good basic services, the predicted vibrant ring of mixed use properties around these downtown mega projects never fully materialized.  Business people staying at the "Ren Center" in the 1980s felt like they had been sent to Fort Apache: At sundown everything locked down and no one ventured outside until the next morning.  This showpiece project detracted from rather than added to Detroit's reputation.

Thus Detroit has not been able to emulate those cities that lost significant numbers of heavy manufacturing jobs from the 1970s until today but and replaced many of them with jobs in the service industries, in thriving retail centers and in light manufacturing.  These cities also replaced residential tax bases based on working class families by attracting significant numbers of affluent childless residents and empty nesters.  Such citizens demand quality services and expect accountable government -- at least in the short term.  Detroit hasn't been able to provide either.  A whole new form of city government must accompany the restructuring of its debt.