New Democracy By Shea Howell
Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
April 10, 2012
Detroiters will soon learn who plans to run our city. Under the newly approved Consent Agreement (CA) a nine member Financial Advisory Board will be appointed and Mayor Bing will create positions for a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and Program Office management director (PO).
The dimensions of this agreement are unclear to everyone. In the course of the debate over the agreement, City Council was given conflicting legal advice and the document itself was in constant flux. Still, its essential characteristics have remained unchanged since the initial draft left Governor Snyder’s office. The ultimate decisions about our financial future rest in an appointed board, not elected officials. This board will demand the setting aside of contracts, massive layoffs, and the restructuring of services. It has the power to sell off city assets and privatize government functions. These powers can be exercised for an indefinite future. The City Council can rubber stamp these decisions, but if cannot veto them without being disbanded and replaced by an Emergency Manager.
The profoundly anti-democratic character of this agreement seems to elude its proponents. Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press has been cheerleading for a state take over. Congratulating the 5 council members who voted for the CA, Henderson wrote a logically impossible sentence. He said of the five, “They embraced a consent agreement that will bring the council, Mayor Dave Bing and the state together around a shared governance model that leaves local democracy intact—but with tough financial oversight.” Such a sentence shows no understanding of “shared governance,” “local democracy,” or “financial oversight.” It is another example of an uncritical and unthinking media effort to tell Detroiters we should not mind losing the right to control our own government.
Henderson, of course was not alone in welcoming the agreement as “realistic.” Nolan Finley, a consistent spokesman for the power elite, lamented the decision to back away from the Emergency Manager. He said, “In choosing instead to sign a consent agreement with the city, one that’s a pale version of what Snyder originally wanted, the governor takes the risk that this last, best chance to rescue Detroit from a financial meltdown will slip away. I spoke with top negotiators from both the city and the state who all say the same thing: This agreement can work, but only if capable people cooperate to do what must be done.” Of course, Mr. Finley doubts the capability of anyone in what he terms s “volatile community.”
Finley, at least, does not pretend this agreement is democratic. He concluded his editorial with an honest assessment. He said, “Democracy has failed Detroit. A short-term dictator could have operated outside a political environment to create a sustainable operating model. Now, we have to hope that under this odd hybrid crafted by the consent agreement, the city’s ineffective leaders can at least learn to nod their heads “Yes” when the roll is called.”
The citizens of Detroit and of the region have not been served well by our mainstream media. Local media has insisted on portraying the budget deficit as the product of incompetent, corrupt local officials and bloated union contracts. They want us to think that we are in financial trouble because of the personality flaws of our city.
This is nonsense. Detroit, like every major urban center, faces deep structural problems caused by the flight of manufacturing capital first to the South then overseas, the dwindling population in search of those jobs and, most recently, the manipulations of Wall Street in the mortgage crisis that swept through our city like a tornado. Further the State legislature has systematically undermined the finances of the city by eliminating residency requirements and refusing to meet its financial obligations to us.
Forty years ago Detroiters were faced with the necessity to reimagine work. Today, as representative democracy turns into a tool to privatize public wealth, we need to reimagine what a real, active democracy can be. While the state moves to box in elected officials, its up to the rest of us to carve out a new political sphere for meaningful action.