Bankole: Detroit lacks transparent government

Bankole Thompson

In 2011, dozens of nations and civil society organizations from around the world converged in New York to launch the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an ambitious global effort to aggressively promote more transparency in government and ensure that people have access to information without restrictions.

In a declaration that affirmed its mandate inspired by the U.N., OGP stated the following:

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan greets the crowds at the Motown Museum.

“Governments collect and hold information on behalf of people, and citizens have a right to seek information about governmental activities. We commit to promoting increased access to information and disclosure about governmental activities at every level of government. We commit to increasing our efforts to systematically collect and publish data on government spending and performance for essential public services and activities.”

That bold declaration on transparency and probity to which 40 nations ascribed, including the United States, is lost in Detroit, where the administration of Mayor Mike Duggan recently admitted to deleting emails connected to the nonprofit Make Your Date, which is under multiple investigations.

The audacity of the administration to delete emails that are related to Dr. Sonia Hassan and her prenatal nonprofit that is under intense scrutiny because of its ties to the mayor shows the extent to which the administration will keep the public in the dark.

It is important to note that the lack of transparency in previous administrations, especially that of imprisoned former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, is largely what paved the way for Duggan to eventually become mayor. If Kilpatrick had not engaged in the crimes he was convicted of, it is unlikely that the political fortunes would have favored Duggan.

During the 2013 mayoral campaign, Duggan promised to be open to Detroiters and branded himself as a new kind of politician who will differ from his predecessors. Despite bringing with him the baggage of the McNamara machine in Wayne County government (where he once commanded the levers of power) that was under longtime federal corruption probe, his campaign war chest assured him the mayorship.

Mayor Mike Duggan

But it is ironic that after promising a new era of open and honest government when he was first elected mayor, Duggan is now facing scrutiny over a lack of transparency that is similar to what took place during the Kilpatrick era.

Like Duggan, Kilpatrick had multiple investigations into his administration about whether public resources were jealously being guarded in the interest of taxpayers and who was or wasn't getting favored.

That underscores why the media must use the same zest it applied during the Kilpatrick administration in confronting what is clearly becoming an open government crisis under Duggan. Detroiters who are being adversely impacted by the recovery because it has yet to reach their neighborhoods have a right to know if the administration is a diligent caretaker of their interest and needs.

But it is not only the deleted emails of Make Your Date that violates the public trust; there are also questions about Motor City Match, a program designed to help entrepreneurs in low-income areas of the city. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the program through its Community Development Block Grant, is now reviewing whether it has been openly violating the rules regarding funding disbursement. 

“The records provided to this office did not sufficiently evidence that the CDBG funds used for the Motor City Match program met a national objective and eligible activity,” a May-1 letter from HUD to city officials stated.

Even though the administration tried to downplay the review as expected for public relations purposes, it still leaves many unanswered questions about the Duggan administration’s way of conducting the business of the city. It is worth knowing that this latest review by HUD came to light months after the completion of another federal investigation into the city’s demolition program.

Here's the question now: What other program will be under investigation and when are we going to know about it?

Only time will tell if we are getting the right answers from Mayor Duggan himself regarding an administration that is accountable to Detroiters.