Commentary
10:37 am
Mon May 9, 2011

Hope and Despair in Detroit

Two years ago, a band of young idealists crisscrossed Detroit, collecting signatures. They had a goal: To make the city a better place to live, with a decent, responsive, functioning government.

They thought the place to start was revising the city charter to  elect a council that would be responsible and responsive. For years, all nine council members have been elected at large, which meant they are in charge of everything and nothing.

They easily could and did ignore constituents they found annoying. Not that this mattered much; as it now stands, Detroit council members have the power to approve the budget and major city projects, but they are powerless to do small everyday things.

They cannot, for example, even ask the lighting department to replace a burned out bulb in a street light.

Worse, the system is set up to produce the worst possible results. Voters are supposed to select nine names from a primary ballot that may include two hundred names. Nobody can possibly know enough to do that, so they pick familiar-sounding ones.

In recent years, this had led to the election of a former school board member famous for being corrupt and the bizarre wife of a congressman who set new standards for bad behavior. Both are in jail now. In recent years, the council has also included an ex-congresswoman who lost her job after holding a fundraiser in a strip club and a once-famous singer who often did not appear to realize where she was or why she was there.

Well, the idealists made things happen. They got voters to approve writing a new charter, and this November, it will be on the ballot. If voters approve, Detroit in the future will have only two at large councilpersons. The other seven will represent manageable-sized districts of just over one hundred thousand residents each.

Other things the new charter would do include creating an inspector general who would investigate waste, abuse, fraud and corruption in city government, and enact mandatory disclosure rules on contractors and lobbyists making political contributions.

That’s the good news. Now for the bad.

Today’s Detroit News reports the horrifying story of a jaunty Australian named Greg McNichols, who bought a rundown apartment building on the east side of Detroit and was pouring money and his own sweat equity into fixing it up. He loved Detroit, and had a cookout for residents nearly every week. One tenant said “he wasn’t just a landlord trying to make money - he was trying to make a difference.”

But on Saturday, that all ended. Neighbors said he told another renter who refused the pay the rent that she’d have to move out.

With that, a man pulled up in a car, and shot the landlord to death before calmly driving away.

Karen James, the property manager, said “I’m a lifelong Detroiter, and I always said I would never leave. And then she paused, and added “but I think it may be time to go.”

That’s a decision more than a million Detroiters have made in recent decades. Having a better city charter may be a good idea.

But unless something happens to make Detroit a safe place for those trying to do good, real hope may remain an illusion.