By Shea Howell
July 26, 2016
Last week a majority of the Detroit City Council voted to place an anti-community proposal on the November ballot. The intent of this proposal is to confuse voters and protect the interests of big business. Council members Benson, Leland, Tate, Spivey, Cushingberry, and Ayers voted to support the proposal. It was developed hastily by Scott Benson in an effort to destroy a people’s initiative to legally mandate a community voice in major, publically supported developments.
With this decision, Detroit voters are likely to have two competing proposals with the same name on the ballot. One, supported by the people, would use the force of law to ensure that communities have a voice and receive agreed upon benefits from developments that use public money or get tax breaks. The other, sponsored by Benson, only mandates a public meeting, where developers get to tell citizens what they plan to do.
Mayor Duggan and the business elite oppose a meaningful Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). They argue that a real CBA would limit development and jeopardize job growth. These claims are nonsense. And they are not the core of the objections. The sad truth is that the Mayor, Councilman Benson, the majority of the Council and the business elite fear democracy. They distrust the wisdom of people. They see a CBA only as something that takes away from profits and control. They cannot imagine that a real CBA, with a true collaborative process, would result in better decisions and better development.
This anti-democratic thrust and fear of the people is actually written into the ordinance proposed by Benson. The one public meeting in the ordinance is orchestrated and designed to tell residents what will happen to them. These “impacts” are universally described in negative terms throughout the ordinance. Citizens are allowed to suggest ways to soften the blows. Nothing is binding. The philosophy reflected in the Benson Ordinance cast people as complainers. Once we get a chance to grip a little, developers go ahead as planned. This is the track record of development, especially under emergency management and Mayor Duggan. Developers don’t live up to even minimal agreements.
In measured support for the Benson Ordinance, Crains says that a real CBA “opens the door to project management by people who may or may not have the subject matter expertise to give guidance and set the rules of play for developers.” The power of the community to “micro-manage specific investments may bring growth to a screeching halt,” they warn.
It does not occur to these folks that there is wisdom and creativity in the community. Community knowledge means better development. Community engagement need not be antagonistic.
The reality is that communities are complex and multi layered. Developers see only one small slice of that reality. For example, last March, a Detroit icon, Faygo, faced a community picket over a closed road. The leadership of Faygo was stunned at being picketed, but wisely decided to engage with the community. They learned that in an effort to make their truck deliveries more efficient they had blocked off essential community pathways for children to get to buses and for emergency vehicles to enter the neighborhood quickly. Before long a compromise was reached so kids could pass safely and emergency vehicles could reach distant streets.
Community Development is about more than jobs or limiting “negative impacts.” A true CBA rests on the belief that community wisdom makes for better decisions for everyone.
We owe thanks to Council President Jones and members Castaneda-Lopez and Sheffield for upholding the democratic wisdom of a CBA. Now we need to organize to win the November vote. Detroiters are not so easily fooled.