Detroit colleagues praise Gilchrist for technology work in city hall

Nicquel Terry Ellis
The Detroit News
Garlin Gilchrist accepts the Michigan Democratic Party nomination for lieutenant governor.

Michigan gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer departed from tradition when she picked a political newcomer and technology specialist as her running rate.

But former colleagues insist Garlin Gilchrist II's track record behind the scenes for the city of Detroit makes him a good selection as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. 

Gilchrist, who has a bachelor's of science in computer engineering from the University of Michigan, served as a director for Detroit's technology department from 2014-17, developing various systems and databases for city departments. He is the executive director of the Center of Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan — a position from which he plans to take a leave if elected in November. 

Whitmer called him a “tech guru” who could help her “get things done.” Republican Gov. Rick Snyder played up his experience as former chief operating officer and president of the Gateway computer firm when he ran in 2010, but delegated technology decisions to subordinates when he was elected. 

While Snyder has made state cybersecurity a priority, his administration has had technology flops. Due to a computer system glitch, the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency made nearly 48,000 false fraud accusations against jobless claimants over a roughly two-year period and has refunded affected residents more than $20.8 million.

Whitmer has implied that Gilchrist would be more involved in state technology decisions if the ticket is elected.

Gilchrist has been lauded by colleagues as streamlining a lot of operations in Detroit government. He was one of two technology services directors who reported to Beth Niblock, the city's chief information officer who was lured away from Louisville's regional government.

Gilchrist developed a database that compiled a registry of Detroit-based businesses, said Portia Roberson, the outgoing group executive for the city's Office of Civil Rights Inclusion and Opportunity. This system was helpful for development projects that needed to hire local contractors, she said. 

Gilchrist demonstrated an expertise in information technology and was willing to share his own ideas while still considering input from others, Roberson said. 

“I think (voters) have very much shown that we want people to work together," she said. “I think Garlin is good at listening to the ideas that come from those who maybe think more like him and those who think different from him.”

How Detroit compares

Garlin Gilchrist (right) Democratic Lt. Gov.candidate/running mate for Gretchen Whitmer, makes a play over Jewel Jones, state representative, during the Occupy the Corner event by Detroit Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield at Tolan Playfield in Detroit on Friday, August 23, 2018.

Detroit has had antiquated technology and computer systems for two decades, a complaint of recent mayors before the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013. While the city has made improvements, it is not considered a leader in Michigan governmental technology circles.

The Michigan Government Management Information Sciences association hasn't given any awards to Detroit since it began recognizing technological excellence in 2007. Consistent winners in the past five years have included Oakland County, Kent County, Novi and Livonia.

Gilchrist left his job with the city in March 2017 to launch his campaign for Detroit city clerk. While he upset two more high-profile candidates in the primary and advanced to the general election, he ultimately lost to Clerk Janice Winfrey by about 1,400 votes. 

However, he focused much of his campaign on a plan to update information systems and records in the clerk's office and improve the absentee ballot submission process. 

Gilchrist, a Detroit native and married father of twins, said he chose to work in local government because he wanted to "fix broken systems and restore trust in government."

Biggest accomplishments

One of his biggest accomplishments, Gilchrist said, was creating a mobile application called Improve Detroit that stored service requests from residents, such as for broken traffic signals, potholes or downed trees.

The database fielded the requests and routed them to the appropriate city department, Gilchrist said. 

Gilchrist said he also developed an application that allowed the city's fire department to communicate with the water department when a fire hydrant wasn't working. 

If elected lieutenant governor, Gilchrist said he will continue to move government operations into 21st-century technology. 

“This is about making sure that we have government in our state that listens to people and is responsive to people," Gilchrist told The Detroit News. “My whole career I have spent it learning how to fix systems so that they work for people.”

Former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, who finished second to Whitmer in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and is now backing her, praised Gilchrist for helping him bring the city department “into the 21st century” after it was all but disbanded during emergency management.

He and Gilchrist “hatched” an idea to work with Argonne National Lab to create an air quality sensor system for Detroit neighborhoods with high rates of asthma and send notifications to residents via a cloud-based computer system. The project never got fully off the ground, “but we laid the infrastructure for it,” El-Sayed said.

“And then just basic stuff like making sure we were getting laptop computers to our field team and new hires and making sure our systems were functioning,” he said. “Those are things you don’t usually have to think about … but when you’re building infrastructure you do, and Garlin was a great help to that — somebody who was very thoughtful, very systematic and very driven to get it right.”

One of Gilchrist's former city colleagues who oversaw a separate technology division was recently sentenced to federal prison for 20 months. Former Detroit Director of Information Technology Services Charles Dodd agreed to the plea deal this month for accepting more than $29,500 in bribes from two information technology companies that provided services and personnel to the city.

Gilchrist has never been mentioned in the federal probe. Asked whether the FBI has closed its investigation into the city's technology department, SSA David Porter said, "As is our policy, I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation either new or ongoing."

When Gilchrist looked to improve the public's access to Detroit records, he hired Joel Howrani Heeres as the director of open data and analysis for the Department of Innovation and Emerging Technology. He worked under Gilchrist from 2015-17.

Gilchrist, he said, was dedicated to making government more transparent and considering the needs of citizens. 

"In a polite and tactful way, he was able to engage departments to figure out how we can be more responsive to citizens and have them feel that government is a partner and not an enemy or a bureaucracy to deal with," Heeres said. "He has that problem-solving mindset." 

Staff Writer Jonathon Oosting contributed.