Detroit council taps union leader to fill vacancy

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
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Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday appointed and swore in a union leader to fill its vacant at-large seat, a process that took several days longer than expected because of a new rule requiring a near-consensus approval vote.

Janee Ayers, 33, an MGM Grand Detroit Casino employee and recording secretary for the UNITE HERE! Local 24 that represents about 6,000 hospitality workers, became the second union leader to join a council that traditionally has sympathy for organized labor. The council voted 6-2 for her appointment over retired Chrysler executive Debra Walker.

The council in December adopted the unprecedented process it would follow to choose its ninth member. What proved most challenging was meeting a mandate in the new City Charter for appointment by a two-thirds majority or six votes.

Tuesday's decision came after the council last week worked to narrow its 16 contenders. The effort to pare down the candidates was lengthy and, at times, confusing, as members endured multiple rounds of voting and deadlocks as it reached two finalists.

"This process was definitely hard for all of us," said Councilwoman Mary Sheffield. "We wanted to fill the position and move forward."

Ayers, along with Walker, returned to the council table for an additional interview on Tuesday. She lobbied for the spot by citing her strong ties with workers and the business community and arguing she'll aim to build career opportunities and city pride.

"I am the best person for this position, and I believe that because of everything I can draw from," Ayers told members prior to the vote. "I am what Detroit is now. We are moving in a positive direction."

Council President and former union leader Brenda Jones, President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr. and members Sheffield, Gabe Leland, Andre Spivey and Scott Benson voted for Ayers. Raquel Castaneda-Lopez and James Tate cast votes for Walker.

Spivey headed off another potential impasse Tuesday by changing his support from Walker to Ayers. He also cast votes for Ayers last week during earlier rounds of voting before the panel reached its final two.

The councilman said he switched his vote because he "needed to exercise leadership" and didn't want the process "to drag on any further."

"This does not need to be a distraction," Spivey said. "The people deserve to have every single seat filled here at the City Council."

Cushingberry previously said he planned to talk with Spivey in an effort to flip his vote.

Selection process 'worked'

Spivey said no one pressured him for a vote and colleagues didn't learn of his choice until Tuesday. He said he had in-depth talks with both candidates and felt each was well qualified for the $76,911-a-year post.

Ayers replaces former Council President Saunteel Jenkins, who resigned in the fall to head The Heat and Warmth Fund, a Detroit nonprofit. Ayers will fill the rest of Jenkins' term that ends Dec. 31, 2016.

The council favored Ayers over Walker after a brief second round of interviews for the pair. After several rounds of voting last week, the council could not resolve a 5-3 spit in favor of Ayers.

Some aren't thrilled with the new selection process and say filling a vacancy should be decided by voters.

"The issue is not with the person, it's the process. I don't like how it was done," said political consultant Adolph Mongo. "(Detroit voters) need to be picking the folks. They need to have an election."

But consultant Eric Foster countered the process provided solid vetting and helped Detroit avoid spending money on an election.

"It worked," Foster said. "That's the easiest way to say it."

Background in labor

Political consultant Steve Hood said the selection of Ayers will likely strengthen the Jones bloc on the council. The influence could surface on issues such as requiring community benefits and employment mandates for new development projects.

"It remains to be seen whether it's a good thing or a bad thing," Hood said.

He added he wasn't familiar with Ayers.

"She may be a real asset. Some of the greatest people are not well known because they do not have name recognition," he said.

Ayers in 2013 became the youngest vice president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, helping to represent more than 100,000 people.

"People like to put the stigma on labor. But the bottom line is labor is nothing more than people that are organized," she said. "My dedication in any role that I serve in, is to the citizens of Detroit."

Ayers, a Renaissance High School graduate, earned a political science degree from Bowling Green State University, with minors in communications and ethnic studies.

The west side resident comes from a family of educators and spent time teaching at-risk students at Detroit's former Millennium High School.

Prior to Tuesday's vote, Walker stressed her desire for each city neighborhood to have equal opportunities. She told members she's open-minded, has fresh ideas and "love and appreciation for the city."

Walker, a 61-year-old Corktown resident, also told members that she was robbed at gunpoint a couple of years ago, but never considered leaving Detroit.

"Why would I leave? This is my home," she said, adding that engaging and educating residents on how not to be victimized is vital.

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