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Respect: Forging Detroit’s Path Forward Together

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2018 Detroit Policy Conference will focus on creating a culture of civility in Detroit.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and City Council President Brenda Jones rewrite script on city government by leveraging cordial relationships, open communication and diverse opinions

By: Tom Walsh

Page: 8-10

During the past decade, Detroit suffered not only economic calamity, but was also derided for having one of the nation’s most dysfunctional city governments. A former mayor and council president were imprisoned and YouTube videos of screaming matches at City Hall went viral. That changed in late 2013 when Detroiters elected a new mayor, Mike Duggan, and a mostly new city council, with Brenda Jones emerging as council president. Following Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the Motor City’s new leadership forged a cooperative relationship.

In an exclusive interview with the Detroiter, Mayor Duggan and Council President Jones discussed the importance of civil discourse and the positive results it has produced for the city.

You and your colleagues do not always agree on every issue, but you have managed to function as partners without public squabbling. How do you do it?

Mike Duggan: A big part of why I ran was the fact that city leaders were creating a national embarrassment for Detroit: the mayor fighting with the council, the mayor fighting with Lansing, the mayor fighting with the unions. I’d get messages from friends around the country, saying, ‘What is wrong?’ And I think Brenda Jones had the same experiences.

Brenda Jones: More important than anything is respect and professional courtesy. This is my third term on the council. I ran for office because I had watched council and I did not like what I was watching. My mother always taught me, ‘You can be part of the problem or part of the solution.’ I wanted to see change. And having the opportunity to make that change, that’s exactly what I did. The mayor and I will be the first ones to tell you that we don’t always agree. But we do know how to disagree in a professional manner. Nobody wants to see anybody fighting.

How did you get everyone on the same page regarding civility?
Mike Duggan: Right after the election, we sat down and it wasn’t a hard conversation. We both agreed that the best thing that could happen would be for the mayor and the council to be working together. I’ve worked really hard at it and I think (Brenda Jones) worked really hard at it.

Brenda Jones: It’s very simple. I’m the president now – and when you are the leader, you set the standard of having a good working relationship. I was able to do just that. We had five new council members coming in, eager to learn, and we set standards of what you expect and what you can live with and tolerate. I had a conversation with Mayor Duggan about this, prior to me becoming president.

And I did say to several of my colleagues that we can agree to disagree, we don’t have to fight in public. It’s important to walk the talk, so my example was important. What do you accomplish when you blow off steam publicly with each other?

How do you communicate effectively and avoid surprises?
Mike Duggan: I have had regularly scheduled lunches, oneon-one, with each of the council members. They all have my cell phone number and don’t hesitate to use it. That’s the way it should be. I also have the benefit of the first city council in decades where seven of the nine members were elected by district. You had a number of council members who got elected by knocking on doors, who never could have got elected in the citywide name identity contest. As a result, I think they were very much in tune with their constituents, so we came in closely aligned in what we were trying to do.

Brenda Jones: One thing I stressed to Mayor Duggan was that, at times in the past with me and every other mayor, all too often we did not have a conversation until it was time for a critical vote and they wanted to get my vote. I think that’s too late, so I said to the mayor, ‘Why don’t you have coffee or lunch with council members, maybe quarterly?’ I know he did it with me.

What do the council members want from the mayor?
Mike Duggan: They always have asks. Raquel Castañeda-López has been a very forceful advocate for making immigrants feel welcome. She pushed us toward the “Welcoming City” standard. We are hiring more bilingual staff as a result. Janeé Ayres has been very passionate about opportunities for returning citizens. Scott Benson has been a very forceful advocate for community benefits and was an author of the community benefits ordinance. So, each of the council members has their own priorities and initiatives. Sometimes I don’t agree with them, but what we try to do is when they come up with an issue that’s important to them, we try to make it work.

MORE: Find out what it takes to build a civil political environment at the Detroit Policy Conference

How have council members helped shape initiatives to improve services, such as turning on the streetlights?
Mike Duggan: The Lighting Authority is jointly appointed by the mayor and the council. When I came into office in January 2014, the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, had intended to appoint the new board members. So, I went to him and said I’ll take responsibility on this. He said, ‘If you and council can agree in the first month on which five to appoint, fine – otherwise I’m going to appoint them.’ It took us about a week to work that out, and it was one of the great successes in the city, putting up 65,000 lights in two years. It was something the mayor and council did together – not a lot of bickering, not a lot of drama, we just got it done.

Brenda Jones: A lot of things were already in the works before I became president and Mike Duggan became mayor, so it was important that we work together to get things done. I think the bankruptcy gave us the money we needed to get better services for the citizens.

The community benefits ordinance was an issue where opinions differed on what types of projects and project size would be subject to discussion with community groups about things such as local hiring and affordable housing. Are you satisfied with the progress?

Mike Duggan: I think most people today would say this ordinance has worked out very well. Six or seven projects have already gone through without nastiness and hostility. Some people thought the ordinance wasn’t going to cover any projects – it’s covered far more than anybody expected – and some people thought it would grind development to a halt, and it hasn’t done that. Every project that’s gone through the process has been approved relatively quickly and with strong community support.

Brenda Jones: I began working on this about six years ago, in response to concerns from
the community about developers making promises that didn’t happen. As far as the ordinance that was passed in a public vote (as Proposal B, applying to projects $75 million and larger), there are not a lot of projects that meet the criteria. So, there are things that need to be improved. Frankly, there are people who feel that they are being pushed out of their communities with developments coming into the city. And that’s why they so strongly pushed for a say-so.

What about the issue of the two Detroits and the disparities between downtown and the neighborhoods? Do you feel city council and the mayor’s administration are aligned on development plans going forward?
Mike Duggan: I think the council and I are completely committed to rebuilding the neighborhoods. Look at the magnitude of it. In the 13 years from 2000 to 2013, 260,000 people moved out of Detroit, an astonishing number. Almost 30 percent of the city left in that time – and none of them took their house with them. So, when this council and I came in 2014, we were dealing with a population loss that’s never been experienced in America, absent a natural disaster.

So, we are trying to recover from 260,000 people leaving their homes, and we are making progress neighborhood by neighborhood. Our polling is showing 72 percent of the city thinks the city’s headed in the right direction, which is a number you won’t see in very many places in America.

I think most Detroiters understand the magnitude of what the city faced and we’re working very steadily. It’s not going as fast as I would like, or as fast as anybody would like, but I think most people give us credit for the progress we’ve made.

Brenda Jones: It’s important to concentrate on the neighborhoods just as much as we have concentrated on downtown and Midtown. I do think the mayor understands that the neighborhoods are important. But I think the message that is not getting out clear enough is that we cannot develop every neighborhood at one time. We must do everything it takes to make everyone feel that there is one Detroit. It’s going to take some time to build back. I do think it’s going to happen.