Eastpointe City Council tackles voting lawsuit

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Eastpointe — The Eastpointe City Council spent nearly two hours in a closed session Tuesday to discuss a federal lawsuit that alleges the community’s electoral process discriminates against minorities.

The panel voted shortly after the start of its 7 p.m. meeting in City Hall to address the lawsuit during the closed session.

The Eastpointe City Council addressed a Department of Justice voting lawsuit during its Tuesday night meeting.

The meeting behind closed doors came the week after the U.S. Justice Department filed a federal complaint seeking to end Eastpointe’s election of officials by citywide popular vote, as it has since 1929, instead of by district.

The complaint, which was not based on a complaint filed against the city and failed to name a complainant, alleges a history of general racial discrimination in the municipality, including race-based residency requirements and proposals to close streets connecting to Detroit. No black resident has ever won office for council, school board or legislative district in this Macomb County city, even though one-third of its electorate is black, the federal government asserts.

During the meeting, City Council members fielded questions from residents about a legal battle and other issues related to the federal lawsuit. Some said they wanted more details on the allegations in the suit before determining the best course of action.

Emerging from the closed session after 10 p.m., Eastpointe City Manager Steve Duchane said his colleagues reviewed how to help their legal counsel prepare a response in the next 60 days, as required.

“We’re going to do it intelligently and thoughtfully,” he said.

The city of about 32,000 residents is considered among Metro Detroit’s fastest growing melting pots. Its black population has climbed 34 percent in 16 years.

Eastpointe City Manager Steve Duchane, who is named in the federal lawsuit along with the council, has said the city’s black residents have not formally expressed concerns, and shifting to district voting could require spending as much as $50,000 to change polling precincts, register new voters and issue new voting cards.

After the council decided on the closed session and addressed other business, Duchane said that he “couldn’t be more disappointed in the Department of Justice” and said some of the lawsuit’s claims were libelous.

Richard Albright, the city’s attorney, said Eastpointe received the lawsuit Jan. 11 and has 60 days to respond. He said the DOJ must provide proof and specifics of its allegations.

Council members said they welcomed community input.

“We are all at this table taking this very seriously and we are all interested in diversity in this city,” said Councilman Cardi DeMonaco Jr.

The issue dominated the second public comments portion of the meeting.

Some community members questioned the government’s pursuit. “I just want to know why we’re on their radar and after all these years of the Voting Rights Act being implemented?” said Lorraine Beeman, a resident for about 18 years.

Patrick Wolff, a lifelong resident and business owner, disagreed with the lawsuit. “Nobody goes out of their way to systematically single someone out because of race, religion or anything else,” he said. “To sit there from the DOJ and say there’s improprieties. ... I welcome them to prove it because I have not seen it.”

Last year, the 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 a lawsuit against the city in January. The complaint alleges Eastpointe violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When presenting its case to the city, the DOJ used census data showing Eastpointe has about 8,000 voting-age black citizens compared with more than 14,000 white voters.

The Justice Department has provided Eastpointe with a proposed map that showed four voting districts broken down by registered voters along racial lines.

The map depicts large blocs of black voters along Eight Mile in the south portion of the city and in its northeast corner. Each of the four districts contained some smaller areas with concentrations of black voters.

In the lawsuit, the federal government has proposed that Eastpointe allow voters to choose their candidates within the four districts. Officials in the complaint noted the city’s black community “is sufficiently numerous and geographically compact” to make up the majority in a proposed district.

“Eastpointe has racially polarized voting patterns, with white voters consistently opposing and defeating the preferred candidates of Eastpointe’s sizable black community,” a Justice Department statement said on Wednesday.

During the meeting Tuesday, some community members highlighted what they perceived as problems with the DOJ proposal. Pastor Albert Rush of the city’s Immanuel United Methodist Church hoped any new districts wouldn’t be termed simply “black wards.”

“As Jesus said, we’re all children of God,” the pastor, who is African-American, told the council. “I’m OK with making sure people have representation, but that area shouldn’t be qualified as a black ward.”

But Cassandra Ford, an African-American who has lived in the city for more than 20 years, notes she continually fails to see minority candidates earn enough votes to win seats. That’s why changing the electoral process could help shift the outcome, she said. “We’ve got to include more people in the process. That’s what’s missing here. I think that gives them a better opportunity.”