New Detroit City Council sworn in, picks Mary Sheffield as president

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit's new City Council was sworn in Tuesday and appointed two of the city's longest-serving members to hold the panel's top leadership posts. 

The body voted 7-2 to appoint as president council incumbent Mary Sheffield, last term's pro tem who ran unopposed in November to retain her seat representing District 5, over former state Rep. Mary Waters, a newly elected council member. Sheffield was nominated by council member James Tate, who has long represented the city's northwest side.

Sheffield has opposed Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on key issues, including demolitions and tax assessments, but political analysts said she has maintained a solid working relationship with the mayor. 

After earning the top-ranking spot, Sheffield thanked the room for having confidence in her.

"As we navigate through COVID- just bear with me, but I'm looking forward to the conversations and also want to thank the citizens of Detroit for electing me for another term to serve," Sheffield said Tuesday. "We may not always agree, but I can guarantee each and every one of you that there will always be a line of communication and that our No. 1 goal is that we continue to move the city forward."

The nine-member council cast the votes as it convened its first meeting of the new four-year term. Six of Detroit's council seats are filled by newcomers, representing the most turnover for the legislative body since the city's financial crisis. 

The members — incumbents Sheffield, Tate and Scott Benson as well as newly seated at-large council members Waters and Coleman A. Young II and district council members Gabriela Santiago-Romero, Latisha Johnson, Angela Calloway and Fred Durhal III — were sworn in during the session held at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. 

Detroit's District 5 representative Mary Sheffield is appointed to serve as its president for the next four years on Jan. 4, 2022.

Tate, District 1 representative, and Waters were nominated to serve as pro-tem or the No. 2 leader on council. Tate, who was nominated by Sheffield, prevailed in a 6-3 vote. 

Those who voted in favor of Waters as president included herself and Calloway. In the vote for pro-tem, Calloway, Johnson and Waters voted for Waters.

Sheffield and Tate assumed their roles effective immediately, ending Jan. 1, 2026. 

"This is going to be a very challenging year," Tate said after being elected pro tem. "But with that, we know that there's a lot of promise that we have ahead of us as well. I promise to make sure that I never besmirch this body and make sure that we work as close as we can, as a collective, to not just react and respond to items coming from the administration, but also as many of us have talked about, developed that legislative agenda.. this body is seeking to do." 

Sheffield, in a statement following the meeting, added as  president she plans to modernize council proceedings and encourage more resident participation. She said she'll also work to increase transparency and establish better relationships with other governing bodies.

"I stand ready to work diligently with my fellow Council Members, our Legislative Policy Division, the Administration and the residents of Detroit to deliver real and tangible quality of life-improving results for those we serve," she said in a statement. "I am also committed to re-establishing the reputation of Council and restoring the faith the community has in this Body."

Besides Waters and Young serving at-large, Calloway represents District 2; it's the third term for Benson, representing District 3; Johnson represents the far east side in District 4; Santiago-Romero fills the District 6 seat; and Durhal represents western Detroit in District 7.

The council also passed a resolution Tuesday to continue to provide remote access to its meetings as a safety precaution amid the pandemic. 

In recent years, Sheffield has clashed with Duggan on Detroit's controversial federally funded demolition effort and the city's handling of $600 million in over-assessments during a six-year period through 2016. 

Duggan's office in 2020 pitched a relief plan for residents overtaxed prior to 2014. The initiative sought to give residents priority in affordable housing, home-buying discounts and job opportunities. But the majority of the former council, including Sheffield, who has partnered with tax justice groups critical of the city's assessment practices, argued that the recommendations didn't go far enough. 

Southfield-based political consultant Mario Morrow said Tuesday it's essential that the city's council president and mayor have a good relationship. While Sheffield and Duggan have disagreed on some issues, Morrow argued the city will see strong leadership from both.

"They’ve had a good working relationship over the years. Disagreed on issues, of course, but it hasn’t been a fist-fighting battle in the media. That hasn’t separated them as enemies," Morrow said. "She’s proven herself with strong leadership skills, working with the administration and outside organizations she doesn’t typically agree with, and I do believe she will demonstrate strong, strategic leadership over the next four years."

Greg Bowens, a Grosse Pointe Park-based political consultant and former spokesman for ex-Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, said Sheffield's fierce advocacy can be encouraging but she will have to work within the parameters of the position to create change.

Sheffield, in her last term, spearheaded a set of ordinances coined "The People's Bills," which aimed to address water affordability and inequities in housing, jobs and other quality-of-life concerns. 

"Mary could be that person to reshape that dynamic as the city council president who pounds the gavel at the table and sets the agenda," Bowens said. 

The council resumes after a rocky year of vacancies. Two council members pleaded guilty to crimes last year — André Spivey and Gabe Leland — stepped down, dropping the council from nine members to seven.

In addition, former City Council President and at-large member Brenda Jones, the panel's former longest-serving member, and District 6 Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López, who made history as the council's first Latina member, opted against reelection runs.

Former at-large member Janeé Ayers, Benson and their chiefs of staff had their homes raided in August as part of an FBI corruption probe coined "Operation Northern Hook."

The investigation and prosecution has led to criminal charges against four Detroit police personnel and Spivey, who pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy.

Ayers, Benson and their staffers have not been charged with any wrongdoing. 

Detroiters have high expectations and will be watching the council closely in light of last year's legal proceedings, Morrow noted. 

"It's important to give the new council the opportunity to work out their own strategy and see if they will hold themselves at a high level of respectability," he said. "The time for bickering is over."