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Bankole Thompson
From left, Detroit charter commissioners Tracy Peters, Nicole Small and Joanna Underwood

The first public meeting of all nine members of the newly elected Detroit Charter Commission appeared like a full-blown trial on the economic recovery under Mayor Mike Duggan. Hundreds of residents from every corner of the city showed up Tuesday at City Hall to express legitimate discontent about ongoing issues in the comeback of Detroit.

They want the Charter, the city’s governance document, to have teeth and to clearly spell out the roles of the various branches of local government, as well as how to hold public authorities accountable.  

Chief among their concerns is the continued existence of the Detroit Land Bank Authority. The program, which oversees blight elimination along with the Detroit Building Authority, has faced scrutiny over the city’s federally funded demolition work.

The verdict delivered at last Tuesday’s meeting of the commission was clear: many residents are not happy with the direction of the city and want a revised Charter that will include their voices in the decision-making process at city hall.

“The Detroit Land Bank Authority and the Detroit Building Authority, these ‘independent’ authorities, need to be examined,” Detroiter Joanne Warwick told me after the meeting. “I think this incarnation of the Land Bank with the current MOU (memorandum of understanding) is a circumvention of the current City Charter and/or the City Council abdicated some of its responsibilities.”

Another issue that came up was the Board of Police Commissioners, which has oversight over policing issues in the city. There’s been talk about making it an appointed body, where the mayor and city council members get to decide who is named to the commission. Its members are elected just like the mayor and council.

But Warwick said the police commission needs more direct guidelines on procedures for resident complaints.

“Currently, the complaint system leaves much to be desired. I have filed several police complaints,” Warwick said. “When I got back a response, I had to call and ask which complaint it was, because the reply had no statement of the facts, didn't name the officers, and had no reasoning for the finding. I found it to be a complete waste of time from the citizen complainant's viewpoint.”

Meeko Williams, a water rights advocate, called for fairness.

“We are tired of special interests having a safe place in our government,” Williams said. “It is your responsibility to make sure the rules are fair and what the process and procedures are in this building.”

During the body’s deliberation, Carol Weaver and Nicole Small were elected chair and vice chair of the commission.

Small said she plans to push for amendments regarding water rates, implementation of a water affordability plan, incentives for city-based businesses and a check on privatization of city services.

“In addition to proposing amendments of the aforementioned sections of the Charter, I’m interested in supporting the people living with disabilities to ensure that their interest is represented in the Charter,” Small said. “Also, I want to identify provisions that support building sustainable communities in low income neighborhoods.”

Commissioner Joanna Underwood echoed Small’s sentiments.

“It’s the people’s Charter. I am dedicated to protecting all your rights and interests,” Underwood told the gathering.

Another commissioner, Richard Mack, assured residents that their voices will be heard during the hearings.

“There are going to be things we propose that are not going to be liked by some people,” Mack said. “I want all of you to be here, to be engaged. I trust all of these members up here, are going to have the best interest of the city.”

Tenay Hankins, an entrepreneur who attended the meeting, said it’s a good start.

“More emphasis should be placed on marketing to educate the public on the importance of each component, timelines and responsibilities of the commission,” Hankins said. “It is a great opportunity to increase civic engagement across all socioeconomic levels. We must feel we are at the table and have skin in the game.”

Going by the opening meeting, the Detroit Charter Commission hearings could be the venue where residents who feel left out have a chance to not only wrest control of the uneven recovery, but to also push for a real, community-driven approach regarding the challenges of poverty facing the revitalization.

Because what good is a recovery if it is devoid of the necessary public input and broader community participation in decision-making by the very people it seeks to empower?

The commission’s next meeting is set for 6 p.m. Jan. 10.

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