Commentary: Ballot madness in Detroit

Sep 10, 2012

If you live in Detroit, I want to wish you good luck trying to wrestle with your election ballot this November.

The rest of us Michigan voters are going to be asked to decide six complex statewide ballot proposals, which is far too many. But Detroiters are going to face a total of ten proposals.

That would be ridiculous, even if this were an enlightened state like Oregon, where everyone is mailed a ballot so they have time to study the races and issues before casting an informed vote.

But ten ballot questions on top of dozens of candidates for everything from President to county drain commissioner? Voting is not supposed to resemble a final in graduate school.

What makes this all worse, in the case of Detroit, is that three of the four proposals the council put on the ballot are, to put it charitably, crazy, and appear to indicate that the members of city council are not living in a rational universe. If you doubt that, consider this:

Detroit is fighting hard to avoid bankruptcy, a state takeover, and an emergency financial manager. The city has a big budget deficit, plus twelve BILLION dollars in unfunded liabilities.

The city has been plagued with ethical problems; as is well known, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick went to jail, and former councilperson Monica Conyers is still behind bars.

More than half the city’s adults are not in the labor force, and poverty is extremely high. Nevertheless, City Council members are asking voters to amend the charter to allow them to accept gifts. They now make more than seventy-three thousand a year, plus a car and an expense allowance. Allowing council to accept presents would be ethically dangerous and send a bad message to the citizens.

But six of the nine members plainly don’t care. They also want voters to get rid of the rule that says city workers who quit their jobs cannot return to work for the city until at least a year after they leave.

They want voters to give more independent power to Krystal Crittendon, the rogue corporation counsel who, despite repeated pleas from the mayor, almost torpedoed the consent agreement that allowed Detroit to avoid a state takeover in April.

Had she succeeded, she’d probably be out of a job now.

The mayor tried to fire her, but council wouldn’t let him.

These days, Detroit’s future is hanging by a thread. Last month, Mayor Dave Bing told me his biggest frustration in office had been city council’s unwillingness to work with him to try and save the city. Instead, he said, they seem to try to sabotage his every move.

“We’re supposed to be on the same team,” he said, shaking his head. Bing said in a lifetime spent in sports and business, he had worked with people who understood how essential teamwork is.

Till now. If were a psychologist, I might think council was sending a signal to the governor, saying “See, we can’t be trusted to govern ourselves; please take the city away from us.”

But I am only a journalist.

And when I see situations and behavior like this, all I feel I can safely say is, “You know, you just couldn’t make this up.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.