I was annoyed the other day to hear on WDET about the Belle Isle deal falling apart, as many obvious common sense city improvements do each year, because of the ineffective and purposefully obstructionist city council. Many days I really feel like the only thing keeping Detroit from reaching it’s full potential at this rare phoenix moment in its history, is the City Council. So I looked up a recent PEW report that compares various measures of city councils in many of the major cities across the nation. This report is very interesting, open it here and do a search for Detroit. A few points:

  • In Figure 6 you will find that Detroit city council was top in the nation for % share of general fund consumed by city council’s salaries, benefits, and operations, and top in the nation for $ budget per resident.
  • In Figure 7 you can see DC, NYC, Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio have part time city councils, we have only 700k people and we have a full time city council. Why? Each of those part-time cities have populations in the millions.
  • In Figure 9 you can see that Detroit has the most racially skewed (on a percentage basis) city council as a reflection of the actual city population. City: 77% black population, 100% black city council. Detroit is middle of the pack in terms of female representation vs proportion of population. There is one openly gay member on the Detroit council, similar to other cities.
  • Only Detroit, Philadelphia and LA provide their members with a city-owned car at city expense.
  • On a more positive note, Figure 2 shows Detroit as having a higher portion of city council members in their first term and Figure 1 shows Detroit having one of the lowest number of years in office, but having a council without term limits.

My primary takeaway: Ask yourself – should Detroit really have a full time city council? DC, NYC, Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio do not and they all have far larger populations than we do. I am not convinced we need a full time city council at all, no one has convinced me that is appropriate for a city with our population. I believe it would actually improve the council’s productivity. Perhaps if it wasn’t their full time job, they actually lived their daily lives out in the community, and they didn’t have the staff resources that allowed them to be constantly contrarian to the public good and the mayor, they would gain a little more perspective. The city councilors and their staffs are so incentivized to keeping their full time jobs that they end up sometimes making work for themselves through a purposefully contrarian disposition. I don’t believe City Council should be a full time job; it is effectively creating a parallel duplicative bureaucracy who’s only purpose is to act and think in contrary to the actual administrative departments of the city that are supposed to be carrying out policies and laws. For example, imagine if City Council and their staff simply agreed with the actual administrative departments of the city, their staff would be largely unnecessary, therefore, they must be contrarian to have a purpose in the first place. City government in the US is designed so that the city manager or the mayor (in some cases those are separate people) along with their administrative departments actually manage the operations of the city and carry out government policy. Same with the federal government, the entire federal bureaucracy that operates the government reports directly to the President (hence the phrase the Obama Administration). The City Council is an advisory body that passes laws, not a parallel duplicative administrative body that interprets and tries to impose them in their own debauched way. Having a full time City Council with a massive staff causes a significant imbalance in the intended check and balance framework of government that is at the foundation of American democracy.