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Back off, Jack

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Does Detroit need the likes of Jack Brandenburg, a Republican state rep from Macomb County, to be meddling with the way Motown residents select their City Council members?

Brandenburg earlier this year introduced a bill that would require all Michigan cities with populations of more than 250,000 and city councils elected on an at-large basis to ask voters if they’d rather have council members who represent specific wards.

Let’s stop to think for a minute about Michigan cities bigger than 250,000. Hmmm. There’s only one that seems to be springing to mind, though we’re holding out hope that someday Grand Rapids will make it there.

So, yeah, this is all about Detroit.

The theory is that councilmembers representing distinct districts would have to pay more attention to the needs of the specific constituency that elected them. It’s probably a good idea. This summer, the group Detroiters for Reform tried to put the question of how councilmembers are elected on the November ballot. To accomplish that, they needed to collect signatures from 5 percent of the city’s registered voters, but fell a few thousand names short of the 32,000 needed. Of course, if Detroit’s voter rolls weren’t falsely inflated with 150,000 or so ineligible names, the measure easily would have made it onto the ballot.

Be that as it may, the effort failed. So Brandenburg stepped into the breach. With his proposed legislation still in committee, we asked Brandenburg why a suburban legislator would want to go messing with what seems like an issue that’s only of concern to Detroiters.

This is his reply: “I’m a state representative and I don’t care what anybody says, a state representative is responsible for all the roadways, river ways, schools, everything everywhere in this state. If you see a trouble spot, you’d better address it.”

Detroit, Brandenburg says, is a trouble spot.

“First of all, Detroit financially — everyone knows this — is a big-time drag on our state’s budget. Detroit needs to become more efficient and they need to become more representative of their people. My colleagues from Detroit in the state House are fine people, but on the local level — you have a pretty hopeless cause with your City Council. I sit on appropriations. I see where the money goes, I see who gets the most money, I see what kind of return we get on our tax dollar, and Detroit just isn’t making the mark.”

Council by district, Brandenburg says, would lead to “more responsible-thinking people” on the council, resulting in better financial policy and results-driven government.

There’s definitely support for district voting in Detroit. What there’s not support for is having outsiders pushing the issue.

“I think districts will happen. I think it’s the wave of the future,” Council President Pro Tem Kenneth Cockrel Jr. says. “But it should be driven by Detroiters, not by legislators that don’t live in the city of Detroit.”

State Rep. Steve Tobocman (D-Detroit) agrees.

“I think Detroiters know best how to govern themselves,” Tobocman says. “Detroiters have shown a very valid proclivity for rejecting plans from Lansing, and rejecting the notion that Lansing can design a better mousetrap.”

Cockrel predicts that Brandenburg’s proposal won’t go very far, citing a similar bill signed into law back when Republican John Engler was still governor. The state Supreme Court declared that law unconstitutional before the 2002 election.

Brandenburg says he wasn’t aware of that when his legislation was first proposed. Now that he does know about it, he plans to retool the language in a way he hopes will pass muster with the courts. No word, though, on exactly how he intends to do that.

Maybe next time, Jack, you should be a little more “responsible-thinking” yourself and do your homework before introducing legislation. Either that, or stick to writing law that would actually affect your home district.

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