Bankole: Is Detroit Charter Commission ready to serve?

Bankole Thompson
People crowded the hall at the first Detroit charter commission meeting Jan. 10, 2019

It was a given that most in the audience at the Northwest Activities Center on Detroit’s west side want to see an evidently inclusive city. But the political theatrics on display Thursday at the Detroit Charter Commission meeting will not pass the muster of a political check and balance against the Duggan administration.

If all nine members of the commission want to gain influence on the recovery and balance the economic pendulum, they will have to show that they can match the political heft of the drivers of the current narrative of the recovery. They will have to demonstrate that they are not only elected officials, but also curious students of the mechanisms of municipal government. Because without an educated understanding of governance and the inner workings of Detroit government, they will be letting down the throng of people who showed up religiously to support them. 

For almost an hour, the commission’s first public meeting of 2019 focused on internal operations and housekeeping issues, which took away from more substantive matters regarding the charter, the governance document for city government. From arguing about how their bylaws were written (including how it reportedly lacked input of all nine members), squabbling over meeting dates, to the minutiae of who sent who an email and at what time, the meeting was chaotic.

There was a lot of bitterness, anger, cynicism, apprehension and deep distrust of each other on the commission. Though there is understandable resentment about where things are, it shouldn’t justify a disruptive meeting. It wasn’t the room you will find healing in, given the state of the city, and the need to uplift the counter-narrative of the lack of investment in distressed neighborhoods.

More disappointing was the fact that Carol Weaver, the chairwoman of the commission, didn’t seem prepared. She appeared to display a lack of understanding of simple parliamentary procedures at the standing-room-only meeting. It was clear that more study and reading is needed to understand the rules and decorum required of such a public body. 

I don’t believe the commissioners have bad intentions for the city. Each of them may have different perspectives about where Detroit ought to be. But regardless of their individual positions on the recovery, they should be able to disagree productively rather than merely looking for dirt on each other to win audience applause. That is not an effective way to get anything done. Despite their political differences, they should respect each other as fellow commissioners instead of shouting each other down.  

Even when the budget came up and commissioner Tracy Peters stated there was no money to begin with, they spent little time talking about that and instead continued to argue ferociously about bylaws. Instead of simply making a motion to amend the bylaws to reflect their wishes and move on, the meeting continued to devolve to chaotic infighting.  

“It was a great turnout, which is a good thing. But the sad thing is that on the first step of a great turnout, you have so much catfighting and jostling,” said local minister Maurice L. Hardwick, known in the community as Pastor Moe. “They need to get together and recognize the bigger issue and the role that they were elected to play for Detroiters. They have to decide whether they will become a commission of progress for the community or a commission of showboat, show out and catfighting.”

Dion Williams, a political consultant said members should be better prepared.

“If you ran to revise the charter, you should have done your due diligence and know what it is that you want to do and your areas of interest,” Williams said. “What you had at the meeting was people sitting on the commission who can’t agree on the simplest things, and don’t understand the Robert Rules of Order.” 

I do not subscribe to the belief that activists who run for office cannot successfully transition to becoming effective legislators, who understand how to use the full weight of government for the benefit of the people. But they have to be strategic and astute enough to be able to win others to their side, especially if they don’t have the votes to reframe the charter the way they see it.

I still have infinite hope in the commission, because this is the second of many meetings to come in a three-year revision process.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.