Detroit— The state-appointed emergency manager has prompted debate about how much his operation of the city is dulling voter interest in the City Council races as residents prepare to elect council members by district for the first time in nearly a century.
While a federal judge hears testimony on whether Detroit is eligible for bankruptcy protection, some political observers say this election cycle may be the last one that generates voter interest for years to come.
But others remain hopeful that voter participation in the city will rise, despite the crisis of erasing $18.5 billion in debt.
After Kevyn Orr became emergency manager in late March, Detroit experienced a sharp decline in candidate participation in the Aug. 6 primary, with a field of 54 candidates compared with 240 candidates for the 2009 council race.
Voter turnout in both primary elections stayed about the same at around 17 percent, according to Detroit election records.
On Nov. 5, city voters will choose from four candidates to fill two at-large seats and from 14 others to fill seven district spots.
“People are gaining more clarity and interest around the districts,” said Donna Murray-Brown, president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association. “At this point, I think we’ll find that the citizens are really engaged, have always been engaged and have always cared.”
“We’ve suffered a couple of blows; an emergency manager, bankruptcy and just trying to figure out ‘where do we go from here.’ That’s what has been on people’s minds,” added Murray-Brown, a resident who also leads the Lansing-based group that provides resources to Detroit voters.
“They have collected themselves and are highly motivated to be a part of democracy. We’ll see that in November.”
But Greg Bowens, a spokesman for the city’s largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 25, is pessimistic.
“The negative effects of the emergency manager linger long after he or she leaves,” said Bowens, who claims emergency management has disenfranchised voters in cities and school districts under state control and could set a similar political tone in Detroit — as it has for its school board.
“There used to be a time when the president of the school board was a recognizable figure in the city of Detroit. Getting a seat on that board was an accomplishment,” Bowens said.
“Today, most people can’t name four members of the Detroit Public School board. That’s a direct result of being taken over by the state. That’s the same thing that’s happening to City Council.”
'Hard road' for officials
Detroit Public Schools has been under an emergency manager for nearly five years. Gov. Rick Snyder appointed finance turnaround expert Jack Martin in July as the district’s third manager.
LaMar Lemmons, president of Detroit’s Board of Education, said when elected four years ago to the unpaid term, he thought the district would emerge from state control within a month.
“I’ve been in wait mode,” Lemmons said. “It is not pleasant, to say the least.”
In comparison, Pontiac is operating under state oversight with a transition advisory board after being run by an emergency manager from 2009 until September.
Pontiac City Councilwoman Mary Pietila said being an elected official in a state-controlled city is a “hard road,” but it remains important for voters in her city as well as for those in Detroit to cast ballots.
“The more numbers they have, the more their EM will see the residents do care,” said Pietila, who is seeking re-election in November to the part-time position.
“If they want to be heard, they need to vote.”
Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder, says the governor’s message to voters is “we’re all in this together” and urges residents to vote.
“The upcoming elections will be some of the most important in the city’s history,” Wurfel said of Detroit in an email.
“Detroiters will be selecting the leaders who will hopefully work collaboratively with Kevyn during the remainder of his tenure and be entrusted to continue strong financial management and the city’s turnaround and growth upon the manager’s exit.”
“The state’s emergency manager law is just that – an emergency provision,” Wurfel added.
Political consultant Eric Foster says Detroit voters are most focused on effective plans from council candidates to improve city operations and finances, not the perceived role of the council with an emergency manager in office.
“That’s what (candidates) need to worry about,” he said.
“That will help fix the concern about democracy. That will help transition from an emergency manager back to self-governance.”
First-time candidate the Rev. David Bullock, who is seeking an at-large council seat, agrees voters “just want to see some results.”
“They want to believe it’s going to get better,” he said.
President Saunteel Jenkins, who is seeking a second term as an at-large council candidate, said voters in this race have greater expectations for the council because of the districts and what the new government structure will bring.
“I do not believe there is apathy,” she said.
“People are passionate about what’s going on in the city and people want to see positive changes, not just changes.”