Written by Linda Campbell
Despite recent efforts by the state government to curtail the progression of democracy in Detroit, thousands of city residents made it to the polls on Tuesday, casting votes for mayor and city council among other ballot measures. Unfortunately most of the local reporters aren’t concentrating on how well those elected will govern the city, but instead on how well they will be able to work with Emergency Manager Kevin Orr, who, thanks to legislation pushed through by Governor Rick Snyder (and despite a popular vote against the idea last fall), retains most of the governing authority in the city. Thus far, the democratically-elected City Council has been relegated to merely an advisory body for Orr, who is expected to function as EM until September of the upcoming year.
Yet just as the appointment of the Emergency Manager has stifled the power of Detroit’s democratically elected officials, revisions to the city charter have shown Detroiters that their votes still matter, perhaps more now than ever before. The revised charter transformed the city’s governance structure, allowing voters for the first time to elect a City Council by individual district, thus creating an opportunity for the Council to practice a model of direct democracy.
Building Movement Project Detroit, alongside other Detroit-based social justice organizations, activists, and residents have been working tirelessly through the summer and into the fall to ensure that Detroit residents are active participants in the governance of their city. In June, they established The People’s Platform, a network of individuals committed to working towards a fair and just Detroit. The People’s Platform believes in the necessity of a strong social safety net that protects and promotes the lives of all Detroiters. In order to create a just and sustainable Detroit. The Platform believes that the issues of Transit Justice, Land Use, Good Jobs, Food Justice and Governance must be addressed.
The People’s Platform helped organize Candidate Nights during both primary and general elections. During these events the Platform was able to issue important demands to the candidates, such as the establishment of the Citizens Advisory Council within the first 30 days after the elections – an action that was required by the revised Charter, and which was supposed to have happened by March 2012. The Platform also asked candidates to commit to policies that advanced community benefit agreements, participatory budgeting and community land trusts. Several candidates demonstrated their commitment by affirming that they would back policies upheld by the Platform if elected. The main goal of the People’s Platform is to ensure that elected officials remain accountable to their constituents, as opposed to state legislators or private interests. They expect the newly elected City Council to honor its commitment to its constituency by assuming the following responsibilities:
- Being present at meetings and fulfilling your duties; understand the magnitude of the powers you hold and the responsibilities that come with it;
- Spending time in the districts represented in order to get to know your constituency and understanding the issues that matter;
- Meeting with residents at least four times per year as mandated by the city charter;
- Consulting residents on community issues to make sure they are involved in the dialogue;
- Fighting for and advocating for constituents; and
- Honoring the charter.
Likewise, the community has established a handful of commitments that it will use to hold the City Council accountable to their constituents. They have resolved to remain involved in the process even after the election and will continue to invite Council members to community meetings so elected members can better address constituent concerns. Through neighborhood block clubs, churches, schools, etc those involved with the People’s Platform will continue to organize residents across the city, and promise to take action if the City Council fails to meet the responsibilities outlined above. They have already engaged in an active outreach and education program that enlisted a group of young volunteers to knock on the doors of over 1,000 residents across city districts.
Although odds seem stacked against Detroit, efforts such as those offered by the People’s Platform reveal Detroiters’ eagerness to remain involved in the political process and to ensure that city leaders will remain accountable to their constituents. In fact, some reports from Election Day are showing that Detroiters, while being portrayed by national media as disenfranchised and disconnected, were actually more engaged than their regional neighbors. While voter turnout for neighboring Macomb and Oakland Counties is estimated at just 19%, reports from Detroit estimate that 25% of registered voters made it to the polls. Perhaps the current revival of the spirit of civic engagement among Detroiters, along with the newly elected governing body, will be Detroit’s chance to regain its democracy and begin its resurgence.
Special thanks to BMP Intern Lia Martinez-Santamaria, who co-authored this piece.