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Vincent M Keenan Headshot

A New Charter and a New Opportunity

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Winston Churchill once said, if you're going through hell, keep going.

Years of hopeful accounting have us at very edge of dissolving our democratically elected government in favor of a governor-appointed Emergency Manager. Detroit is no closer to finding its footing than it was three years ago when our city was hit by the auto industry's collapse and rocked by multiple tawdry scandals that cost us millions of dollars and national shame. It is a prolonged and unsettling disorientation, but in a way, that might not be all bad.
Detroiters aren't that prudish. Our dirty laundry gets aired pretty regularly. It was infuriating to spend eight million tax dollars to cover up an affair between our then Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff. We endured as he committed perjury and then served as mayor from a prison cell. Our old Charter required four mayoral elections in one year to the tune of three million during a budget crisis. In the midst of that turmoil, the President Pro-tem of City Council went to prison for accepting bribes.

Since that time, every other week for almost two years we've been revising that Charter. Charter Commissioners executed what was respected as one of the most open and transparent efforts this city has ever seen. We argued, made mistakes, stormed out of the room, and stormed back in. Some scored points and then lost points, and we did it in front of the cameras, the world, and anyone who cared to look. It was a model of civic participation and open deliberation. Not everyone chose to participate, but everyone in Detroit had a chance to own a piece of this new charter.

Last Tuesday, the new Charter was adopted. It contains ethics reform and enforcement and anticipates policing the complexities of public-private partnerships like the Woodward Light Rail that could, if unwatched, become the source of the next scandal. It eliminates the triggers that forced costly and unnecessary special elections. This new Charter is not perfect, but like the city that conceived it, it is takes steps toward a better future.

The new Charter is just one expression of a desire for change. We regularly elect progressive reformers, who try in earnest to shuffle, restructure, and work around the entrenched bureaucracy. We've been told we're on the edge so many times that it feels like Detroit is as much on the edge of existence as on the straits of the Detroit River. Mayor Bing is once again reminding us that things are really, really bad this time and that we're going to have to make some hard choices. It's difficult to remember the last time Detroit didn't have to make hard choices.

Yet, if there is one common thread that ties Detroiters together it is resolve. It may be hard for Detroiters to believe that tomorrow is going to be a brighter day, but you can be damn sure we can take whatever tomorrow throws at us. We've been built to endure.

And something is happening here. It's not just in the smoky back rooms of city hall or the executive office suites. Collectively, we are finding ways to push a near-collapsed system forward. There is still waning fear that the boogeyman is just around the corner, touting change that will make things even worse but those fears are moving further to the fringe. They are being replaced by the realization that while there has been injustice in the past, we're not going to get through the worst parts unless we keep going.

We are on the cusp of an exciting and entirely new government in Detroit. Districts bring representation into our neighborhoods for the first time in 94 years. We've created an opportunity that if we seize it, will help galvanize the city. Alone, districts are not a silver bullet, but the stage is set the breathe live into the old system. We need new visionary leadership to step up. We need entrenched bureaucracy to be broken up. We need to give our future its best shot at success.

We talk a lot about how Detroit is coming back, and we see flashes of inspiration and commitment that fuel the conviction that this time it will work, that we may be the Detroiters who will break the cycle of decline. It's an exciting time, when there is more energy on our streets that there has been in years. The challenge is to capture that energy and rebuild our economy, our schools and our neighborhoods while we rebuild our city government. We're going to need that resolve to answer questions of race and poverty and tolerance in a way that works. We have lived through a reminder that beyond our interests there is the collective good for which we are all responsible.

Every day we are remembering and reinventing our civic obligation. We are all Detroiters because of a fundamental agreement. An agreement that says we will live here and we will be responsible for what happens here. It is what binds us together and is our most basic relationship. We may be tough, but we'd forgotten to keep going. Our orientation needed to change, and so disorientation is an expected step. When we do find our footing, we will make it all the way.