January 21, 2011 at 1:00 am

Secrecy an issue in plan to reshape Detroit

Meeting, contract openness are questioned as effort proceeds

Detroit — Mayor Dave Bing says there's no secrecy in his efforts to reshape Detroit, but skeptics say he's done little to ensure transparency.

Bing ultimately will decide whether to abandon neighborhoods in his Detroit Works Project. But so far, the effort is funded by the private Kresge Foundation and advised by a task force of volunteers. That's allowed the process to bypass laws requiring meetings and contracts be public.

Meeting minutes of the 55-member advisory task force aren't posted publicly. Its last session, on Jan. 6, was private. Kresge's $1.5 million donation to the project was funneled to the Detroit Economic Growth Association, a nonprofit that told The Detroit News this month that it doesn't have to release records because it's not a public body.

As a result, little is known about how the money is spent on a plan that could affect thousands of residents.

"I am concerned about the transparency of the whole process and whether there is a hidden plan that hasn't been made public," said Councilman Kwame Kenyatta. "It's not something that is coming through city government, which is a problem."

But city officials said repeatedly there is no plan yet and their efforts to involve the public are unprecedented.

"Continuous public participation, feedback and input are the foundation of the Detroit Works Project," Karla Henderson, a Bing group executive in charge of the project, wrote in an e-mail to The News. "No attempt at such sweeping change has been made at this scale, nor has any previous effort so actively engaged residents to help shape the future of this city."

City officials are so concerned about public perception of the project that a key Bing aide, Kirk Lewis, last month warned council members to watch their remarks, writing to them that it's "unnecessary for any member to comment on this project without regard for the facts." He sent the letter because he claimed Council President Charles Pugh spread "misinformation" in the media. Pugh declined comment.

Next stage nears

The debate comes as the next stage approaches in Bing's effort to streamline services as revenues and population decline. The mayor has said the city likely will offer some residents incentives — perhaps city-owned homes — to consolidate them in seven to nine neighborhoods.

Later this month, the administration will kick off 40 neighborhood forums. And on March 31 or April 1, Bing plans to release a study looking a "numerous factors involving neighborhoods," said Dan Lijana, a Bing spokesman.

The study won't recommend neighborhoods to mothball, but residents can "draw some pretty powerful conclusions" from it, Lijana said. A definitive plan is expected to emerge later this year.

But even some members of the advisory group contend Bing has a plan he hasn't disclosed.

The Rev. Charles Williams II, the pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church and a task force member, said he was surprised to learn in the media that Bing wants to use incentives to lure residents into seven to nine neighborhoods and his staff has met with the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit to coordinate church closures.

"We haven't had a conversation close to that," Williams said. "I don't think the mayor is even paying attention to the group right now."

"It's obvious that the mayor already knows what he wants to do."

Williams said he thinks Bing is "tone deaf" about how closing the recent meeting and not releasing Detroit Works contracts is perceived.

"The mayor is really operating in a vacuum," Williams said.

Vince Keenan, who runs the voter information website publius.org, said Bing is doing groundbreaking work, but closing this month's meeting sends the wrong message. The group's other three meetings were public, as is one planned for Monday.

"You can't feed paranoia if you want this to succeed," said Keenan, who has attended the task force's other meetings.

"You have to be as open and transparent as possible, even when it is uncomfortable for you."

"There are some really important ideas here and this process will rely on building trust."

Bishop defends openness

The meeting was closed while members gave city officials feedback on presentations planned for the upcoming forums.

Bishop Charles Ellis III, who is a chairman of the task force, defended the group's record for openness.

"Sometimes you need a closed meeting because you have to deal with some very in-your-face agenda items," said Ellis of Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.

Other information has been tough to acquire.

The project maintains a website, detroitworksproject.com, but Henderson wouldn't answer who funds it. Nor would she answer whether city officials believe Michigan's Open Meetings Act applies to the advisory group.

City officials have released a list of contractors involved in the project. But when The News filed a Freedom of Information Act request for contracts, including for urban planner and adviser Toni Griffin, Henderson forwarded it to the Growth Association.

The agency, a spinoff of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., declined the request, arguing it is not subject to the law.

Michigan's FOIA law expressly applies to traditional public bodies, but it's less clear on quasi-governmental bodies, said Robin Herrmann, an attorney for the Michigan Press Association. The statute creates exemptions for nonprofit groups, and the DEGA considers itself one.

Laura Trudeau, a senior program director at Kresge, said the foundation gave the funding to the DEGA because of the group's "deep expertise in project and contract management."

And she said the project has been transparent.

"All the various questions are being answered in the public forums," she said.

Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins said she believes the project has been open so far but believes contracts should be public documents.

"I don't understand why it would be anything we would need to keep secret," Jenkins said.

Bing's predecessor, Kwame Kilpatrick, encountered similar concerns with his signature neighborhood effort — the Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative.

The effort to improve six neighborhoods was run by a nonprofit group, which didn't have to disclose its finances and also generated questions among council members about secrecy.