October 4, 2013 at 1:00 am

Civic dysfunction

Former Detroit Councilman David Eberhard looks forward with optimism

Detroit— One of the last times the Rev. David Eberhard went to City Hall, he sought an appointment to a minor board, hoping to make a difference.

Eberhard’s resume speaks for itself. The longtime minister of Historic Trinity Lutheran Church served for 24 years on the City Council until 1993. He was active in civil rights and counseled Gov. George Romney and Mayor Jerome Cavanagh on quelling the ’67 riots.

The post was unpaid. Even so, Bernard Kilpatrick, the father of then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, told Eberhard he’d need to buy fundraising tickets if he wanted it.

“We’ve lost our purpose and become too self-centered: Detroit is for Detroiters only,” said Eberhard, 79, who moved to the city in 1959 from Louisville, Ky.

“It’s not how much we can help city services, it’s how we can fatten the herd, line our pockets and help our friends.”

In his early years on the council, he served with members including Carl Levin, Erma Henderson and Ken Cockrel Sr. who prided themselves on doing their homework, asking tough questions and serving their constituents. By the time Eberhard left, council politics had declined.

“The quality of government drifted from knowing what you’re talking about to the politics of gotcha,” Eberhard said. “Compatibility gave way to one-upsmanship. People were playing to the crowds rather than being concerned about good government.”

Many of the issues that precipitated Detroit’s bankruptcy filing took root when Eberhard was on the council: soaring legacy costs, the expansion of restrictive union rules for city workers and opposition to regionalizing city-owned assets.

Eberhard said aides to Mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer insisted the budget was balanced but acknowledged “people may have been telling us lies.” He had no luck with proposals to have the National Park Service take over Historic Fort Wayne and a regional authority to fund and oversee the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose collection is now at risk.

“Everyone thought the city would go on and the gravy train would never stop,” he said. “There was a mentality that everything was going to be here, we should never worry, this is our town and don’t tell us what to do.”

Political corruption was never unknown in Detroit, whose former mayor, Louis Miriani, served 10 months for tax evasion in 1969 after his term.

In the ’40s, members of the Wayne County Board of Auditors went to prison for corruption. Even Detroit’s 250th birthday celebration in 1951 featured a minor scandal over a no-bid contract for its peanut vendor.

Eberhard said the nadir came with Kilpatrick, who thought he was “born to be king.” A week after Kilpatrick was elected to a second term in 2005, Eberhard left the city after more than 40 years for Harrison Township.

He and his wife were getting older. His children persuaded him to leave his five-bedroom house in the Berry subdivision near the Manoogian Mansion, where they had grown up playing with the kids of Mayor Cavanagh.

“It wasn’t a happy moment,” Eberhard said.

Last year, the house near the Detroit River that he had sold for $251,000 fell to foreclosure and “went to hell.” It was resold in December for $71,500.

“It’s everybody’s fault,” he said. “You can’t change the past. Somebody did it. It’s done. Move on. Look forward. There is always some hope.”

(313) 222-2513

The Rev. David Eberhard was on the council during Coleman Young's tenure. (Photo provided by the Rev. David Eberhard)
Eberhard (Clarence Tabb, Jr. / The Detroit News)