Sham discussions

Michigan Citizen, Feb. 20-26, 2011

The foundation-driven assault on democratic processes is unfolding under the guise of community engagement in the Detroit Works Project. In January a series of small meetings began to create a false stamp of community approval for the Mayor’s scheme. These meetings are highly-controlled processes, filled with manipulated data.

Karla Henderson, the Mayor’s project leader, said, “We are engaging our community in a discussion about the challenges we must face together.” She said that this round of meetings would be “smaller neighborhood-based discussions where we’ll provide data but also listen to the many things people are doing to improve their neighborhoods every day.”

So far this is not happening. Instead citizens are forced to endure a presentation designed to push the rationale for the foundation-driven plan to shrink the city. Then the citizen engagement comes in the form of little electronic clickers intended to gather information from individuals on a series of nearly meaningless multiple choice questions loaded with assumptions that require discussion. But instead of engaging in conversation about the assumptions and the ideas behind the questions, people are told to click their “answers” in isolation from one another. This is not a process of community engagement. It is an insult to democratic discussion.

Moreover, the questions are designed to get the kind of answers that will endorse the Mayor’s plan. They are not serious efforts to help us talk about the complex issues we face. For example, question 1 asks, “What is the most damaging impact of population loss in your neighborhood? A. Increase in blight, B. Paying more for less effective services, C. Diminished sense of community, D. No Impact.”

It should surprise no one that most people respond to concerns for blight and diminished services. No doubt these sort of responses will become factoids in new power points designed to show that the Mayor is responding to the desire of citizen to get ride of blight; hence his responsibility to them is to knock down neighborhoods. .

Instead of responding to these sorts of questions with a clicker, we should be talking with one another about what we are doing and would like to do in our neighborhoods.

Along with these sham and shameless efforts at gathering citizen input, there is the troubling slide show presentation that sets up a framework for how citizens will respond to the survey. At the very least citizens deserve some explanation for how the figures put forward as fact were derived.

For example, one of the most dramatic slides zeros in on an area around Mack and Gratiot. The slide compares tax revenues collected from the area in 1950 and today. The slide claims that in 1950 185 homes produced $151,673 in tax revenue. Today, the remaining 40 homes produce $32,794 in tax revenue..

How did the Mayor’s team come up with this statistic? A little simple math shows that for some reason they calculated a tax of about $820 in tax revenue per household in 1950 and simply multipiled that times the number of houses. Then, 61 years later they used the same tax and multiplied it by the smaller number of houses.

There are so many things wrong with this kind of calculation that it is hard to know where to begin. But it illustrates the kind of “facts” designed to support the Mayor’s perspective.

Likewise, the presentation claims that it costs the city $9 million dollars per square mile to provide city services. How on earth did they calculate that number?

Citizens should make clear that these meetings are not democratic. They are not based on serious discussion or data. They are designed to cover over decisions that are being made behind closed doors. We should demand much more than this kind of sham discussion.


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