week 5 New Public Trust By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

New Public Trust

By Shea Howell

Week five of the occupation

April 23, 2013

sheaIt is past time for the Detroit City Council to rethink its role under occupation. Their most recent vote to approve the no-bid contract for the Jones Day law firm is one more indication that the Council has no moral compass. Even Detroit’s most consistent voice of the business community, Crain’s, acknowledged the conflict of interest inherent in the city hiring the former law firm of the current Emergency Manager.

In a forceful editorial Crain’s said:

“Detroit’s top attorney told the City Council last week that there is no conflict of interest in giving what is surely a multimillion-dollar contract to the Jones Day law firm. ??We beg to disagree. ??Until last month, Detroit’s new emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, was a Jones Day partner. Yes, technically, he resigned and surrendered his partnership to take the Detroit job. ??But awarding the contract will absolutely reinforce a pervasive suspicion in Detroit that rules exist for ‘other people’ — not the well-intentioned power brokers trying to put Detroit back together.”

Instead of wondering how to please their new Manager, the City Council should take a lesson from the Detroit School Board in exile. Often without any formal authority and constantly under attack, the elected Detroit School Board has consistently raised important questions about the protection and development of our children within the public schools. They have turned the spotlight on the dictatorial, short sighted, and detrimental decision making of Roy Roberts and his predecessor Robert Bobb. They have mounted court challenges and held public meetings. They have invited open comment at regular sessions. They have challenged decisions and offered alternatives. They have not worried about their paycheck. As a result, they have been developing a new political space for people to come together and challenge some of the most destructive efforts to turn the education of our children into new profit centers for corporations.

The Detroit City Council should be playing a similar role under this occupation. Instead of casting public comments as disruptions to normal business, the Council needs to take every opportunity for citizens to speak. It needs to encourage and protect a strong public record of resistance to the current decision making powers of the Emergency Manager.

Further, the Council should insist that the new City Charter serve as the covenant governing the actions of all in the city, including the Emergency Manager. It should bring the spirit and letter of the Charter into its deliberations. The Preamble holds that good governance “addresses the needs of all citizens and affirms our commitment to the development and welfare of our youth, our most precious treasure; instituting programs, services and activities addressing the needs of our community; fostering an environment and government structure whereby sound public policy objectives and decisions reflect citizen participation and collective desires; pledging that our officials, elected and appointed, will be held accountable to fulfill the intent of this Charter and hold sacred the public trust.”

For example, section 4-122 of our Charter, entitled Approval of Contracts and Disclosure contains commentary that captures the spirit of the Charter. It notes that the intent of this section is “to provide more transparency and accountability in City contracting. It creates a process for regular public reporting of contract information …and requires that contractors within the City of Detroit disclose information regarding political contributions to and expenditures in support of elected city officials.”

There is much this Council could do to establish a deeper understanding of democracy. But it not likely the majority will do anything other than try to protect their own paychecks.

We, the people, however, can use every gathering of friends, neighbors, faith communities, and service clubs to discuss what our “collective desires” are for our neighborhoods. How do we take up a new “public trust” and bring it to life in our neighobrhoods?