A Meaningless Vote?
Last week, it looked like the City Council's on-going struggle over the issue of mayoral control of Detroit's troubled schools was a dead one because, well, the head of the Council said so.
But now, the battle has not only been renewed, but has been intensified by those looking to eliminate Detroit's elected school board and concentrate power in the Mayor's hand. Radio ads have gone out calling for the council to take up the issue and excoriating opponents of mayoral control. Hundreds have called, shown up for local meetings and sequestered council members in back rooms in an attempt to sway their decision. Meanwhile, the council seems divided on the issue, and much of the division seems largely based on which council members harbor dreams of one day being mayor. (There are reports that two likely Manoogian aspirants could be introducing compromise proposals to council today when the body revisits the issue.)
But for all the rancor being expressed, for all the outrage and desperation and misinformation being supplied, does it really matter whether the City Council decides to put the issue on the November ballot? Does it even matter what the voters say?
In a word: No. Because even if the issue made the ballot, Detroiters' vote won't necessarily count.
The measure would be an "advisory" measure only — meaning that no matter what Detroiters ultimately decide (and so far most seem against handing the schools to Mayor Bing) the powers-that-be can ignore them without consequence. This means that the issue can, and probably will, ultimately fall to the questionable judgment of that other Barnum-esque big top of area politics, the Michigan state legislature.
And it wouldn't be the first time that the state has ignored the wishes of Detroit voters on these so-called "advisory" questions either. For instance three years ago, 71 percent of Detroiters voted to have Lansing forgive a $200-million debt that a state-approved CEO, Kenneth Burnley, ran up during a previous state takeover that ran from 1999 to 2005. Lansing ignored them. And in 1994, Detroiters voted in favor of casinos and the then-Republican governor simply paid them no mind because it was only "advisory." Ah, the illusion of power. Reminds me of the old Malcolm X line: "Even when you vote, they fix it so you're voting for nobody."
So why all the fuss about what happens around this issue in November or even in the next few weeks? After all, Lansing can give Bing control over the schools (and their lucrative contracts) today, tomorrow or whenever it so chooses — even without this advisory question. From all I hear and can see, this debate over mayoral control is largely just about the appearance of enfranchisement, about trying to make what could be a foregone conclusion look like it was actually debated.
Everyone knows that the state has no problem taking over Detroit schools under the pretext of saving the city from the boobs who infest the board. Of course, if you pay attention, you also know that the state does at least as sorry a job as the board, if not worse. (Witness, for instance, how state-appointed DPS emergency financial manager Robert Bobb has miraculously increased the DPS budget deficit by 66 percent in a year. And remember that it was the state, not the elected board, that turned a $90-million-plus DPS surplus into a multimillion deficit following the 1999 takeover.)
Now, we're hearing politicians tell us that the Republican-dominated state legislature would step in and vote to hand control of DPS to the mayor of Democratic-controlled Detroit only if it appeared that "that's what the people want." So if the current measure fails to make the ballot, proponents of mayoral control can argue that the people called for it but that the council defied them.
Of course, if the measure makes the ballot and voters shoot it down, well, it won't really count anyway, will it? After all, it's only "advisory."
So basically, Detroit, it seems you can either vote to surrender the right to vote for your school board or you can have the state Republicans do it for you. The choice is yours.
But not really.