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Detroit City Charter's New Council By Districts Could Change Representation, City Services

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Starting with the 2013 election, Detroit voters will elect City Council members by geographic districts, according to new guidelines established in the new City Charter.

Council by districts is just one of the many effects of Detroit's new charter, which took effect Jan. 1. (Detroiters previously mandated the new charter include council by districts in a 2009 vote.) But how the city's financial crisis and the possibility of a state takeover might dampen the effect of the new representation rules, and other charter reforms, remains to be seen.

Under the new system, voters will no longer elect all City Council members "at large," from a single, city-wide pool. Instead, there will be one council member elected from each of seven new districts and two at-large members. Candidates must identify what type of council seat they are seeking.

Detroit's seven districts, or wards, will be divided by roughly equal population. The current City Council must draw the new district lines ahead of the 2013 election.

Depending on how the lines are drawn in Southwest Detroit, the ward system could allow for Latino representation on the council. The 2010 census showed 7 percent of Detroit residents identify as Hispanic, but they make up a majority of residents in the city's Chadsey, Hubbard-Richard, Springwells, and Vernor/Junction neighborhoods. The West Riverfront area is 47 percent Hispanic. Hubbard-Richard was one of only three Detroit neighborhoods to see a population increase since 2000, gaining 3 percent.

Proponents of the ward system have said it would make City Council members more accountable to city neighborhoods, and allow for currently underrepresented populations to have a say in city government.

But Southwest Detroit community activist and Detroit School Board member Elena Herrada is not optimistic about the reforms having a positive effect any time soon. She noted that if an emergency manager were appointed for Detroit, the City Council could be rendered powerless.

"Now that we finally get a chance to get someone elected to represent us, the point may be moot," she told HuffPost in an email. "Emergency managers trump all elections, all elected officials are either removed or neutered like the school board members under an EM at the schools."

The Detroit School Board has little say under Roy Roberts, the emergency manager who controls the system. An emergency manager for the city of Detroit would have the power to dimiss elected officials.

With or without an emergency manager, Herrada thinks getting a Latino candidate elected to Detroit's legislative branch would be an uphill battle. She cited the challenges Latino candidates have had gaining office in the city.

According to Reuben Martinez, director of Michigan State University's Julian Zamora Research Institute, a Latino candidate has never a won a city-wide election in Detroit, with the exception of Judge Isidore Torres.

Martinez told HuffPost the new council-by-district rules will likely keep Latino political power constrained to Southwest Detroit, but said the city may start to see more cross-cultural alliances.

"As the city continues to experience some changes and people begin to embrace change," he said, "I think there will be more possibilities for alliances across population groups that may provide some opportunities for Latinos to have greater influence."

Until recently, Detroit was the only major U.S. city to have a city council elected completely by city-wide elections.

Some research has shown that electing council by districts could also affect the distribution of city services, such as park maintenance, street pavings and police patrols.

A 1997 study published in the journal Economics and Politics, compared the municipal records of 1,812 U.S. cities that had at-large or district-elected council members and found significant increases in spending under a ward system.

Detroit's current financial crisis may cause the city to buck that trend in the short term, however, as the city is unable to maintain even its current level of services.

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