No Sham Democracy

No Sham Democracy
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Sep 12, 2010

The Detroit City Council is back at work. Detroit school children are attending fewer schools in some of the most crowded classrooms in the nation. Meanwhile, Mayor Bing is launching an effort to engage the community in his plans to reshape the city.

In announcing his Strategic Framework Plan, Mayor Bing said, “ A lot of people are assuming there is a plan on the shelf that we’re just not sharing with anybody.” He went on to say “A lot of plans that have been developed historically have not included the community like we want to…We’ve got our own ideas in terms of what needs to be done, but it might not match up with what the community really sees and wants because they live it day to day. We’ve got to get them engaged and involved in this process.”

To that end the Mayor and his hired consultants, paid for by foundation money, are planning a series of five large meetings, to be followed by about 40 smaller neighborhood meetings. The mayor has assigned Karla Henderson, group executive for planning and facilities, and Marja Winters, deputy director of the city’s Planning and Development Department, to work with Toni Griffin, a Harvard architect and urban planner who is being paid by the Kresge Foundation. They have also established a task force of 55 people to give the appearance of community input.

Herein lies the first problem. The Mayor is launching the current planning phase as though he had not already talked about shrinking the city, had not already made clear that he intends to divide the city into winners and losers, and has embarrassingly tried to knock down a few houses in pursuit of his plan. He is acting as though he has not already coordinated his efforts with Robert Bobb’s school closings that further destabilize neighborhoods. The Mayor, the foundations that support him, and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, who have been demanding “bold leadership, ” are now acting as if they have no ideas or plans of their own and are only concerned with engaging the community.

Anyone who remembers the comments of just a few months ago is rightly suspicious of the motivation and intentions of this Mayor and the forces that control him. He has yet to indicate that he was in any way out of line in his earlier comments. We have yet to see any acknowledgement that Detroiters have their own solutions and ideas for how to refashion our city.

Instead, continuing practices and policies based on believing there is no capacity or imagination within the city to bring about change, the mayor has hired yet another consulting firm to work with Ms. Griffin to ensure community engagement. The Community Building Institute of Arlington VA. recently sent around an email to all kinds of folks saying they are “looking for facilitators to support small groups discussions.”

This is the heart of the problem. In a city that is noted for its local and national organizing efforts, that has more block clubs than most cities in Michigan have people, countless community organizations, churches on virtually every corner, schools engaged in community rebuilding and political organizations of all persuasions, why do we need a community engagement process that bypasses these existing structures?

Meaningful democratic discussion depends on relationships of accountability. By creating public processes that do not draw on the fabric of connections already established in the city, the mayor and his consultants diminish democracy itself, putting together a sham process that counterposes isolated individuals to the Mayor’s organized efforts.

Over the next few months, we should demand that the Mayor and his staff not only hold public meetings on their terms, but that they also attend meetings held by existing community groups who are already working to change the city. Real community engagement means more than rubber stamping the ideas of people who seem to know little of what is actually moving our city forward.


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