Eastpointe to change how it elects its city council

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Eastpointe — The city plans to switch from electing city council members on an at-large basis to choosing them by districts to avoid being sued by the federal government, officials said Thursday.

“It’s not a matter of discriminatory practices,” Mayor Pro-Tem Michael Klinefelt said. “It’s just a matter of the changing voting demographic that exists in Eastpointe.”

Klinefelt made the remarks during a news conference held in city council chambers at City Hall. He was joined by City Manager Steve Duchane, other city council members and the city’s attorneys.

City officials said they will hold public hearings during city council meetings on Dec. 20 and Jan. 3 before deciding on a course of action. The new system would be implemented in November.

“However we proceed on this, it’s very important to all of us that every citizen in Eastpointe feel like they can participate in the political process in a meaningful way,” Klinefelt said. “This is an important issue and will have a huge impact on our city.”

The proposed changes won’t affect the mayor position, which will continue to be filled on an at-large basis.

The U.S. Department of Justice told the city to change the way voters elect its four council members in the southern Macomb County community or it would file federal lawsuit against the city on Jan. 9.

For its part, the Justice Department said it will delay filing a formal complaint against Eastpointe for a short period in the hope that a settlement can be reached before taking the matter to federal court.

“This is to notify you that the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has authorize the filing of a lawsuit against the city of Eastpointe and the appropriate city officials, alleging that the existing system for electing the members of the Eastpointe City Council violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act ...,” department officials wrote to the city in a Nov. 18 letter.

The letter also said an investigation “indicates that under the totality of the circumstances, the current at-large system of electing the city council denies Eastpointe’s black voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.”

The letter is signed by U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade and Vanita Gupta, the principal deputy assistant attorney general with the department’s civil rights division.

Eastpointe has a total population of about 32,000 and about 34 percent of it is African-American. The justice department recommends one of the city’s four council districts be drawn in a way to give African-American voters a better opportunity to elect a minority candidate.

City officials said in city council elections held over the last seven years, six African-American resident campaigned for seats, but none were elected.

Duchane said it was clear the Department of Justice had been studying the issue in Eastpointe for at least several years, but didn’t report any complaints from residents about not being able to vote for city council candidates of color.

Eastpointe has a total of about 8,000 voting-age citizens who are African-American compared with more than 14,000 voting-age citizens who are white, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey data the Department of Justice used to make its argument to city officials.

The Rev. Albert Rush, pastor of the Immanuel United Methodist Church in Eastpointe and an African-American resident of the city, attended a meeting Thursday on the issue and said he feels like the federal government is stepping on the city’s neck.

“I feel like the city is being picked on,” he said. “I feel like somebody is putting their foot on our neck and forcing something down our throat.”

Klinefelt said the city’s administration, council and attorneys met with four representatives from the Justice Department on Friday to discuss the issue and the meeting went well.

Adopted in 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act “prohibits any voting practice or procedure that results in a denial or abridgement of the right to vote on account of race.”

The planned changes also coincide with a coalition of Detroit pastors this week issuing what they are calling a “travel warning” for blacks to avoid the city after an African-American man alleged he was beaten unconscious by several officers while in police custody last year.