The sparks flying between the Detroit City Council and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick are just getting hotter and hotter. So it's a surprise that the media took little note of this: Attorney David Whitaker of the council's Research and Analysis Department recently told council that the city Law Department had shared with him "privileged and confidential information" regarding the median being built on Livernois Avenue from Eight Mile Road to Grand River Avenue.
That information, according to Whitaker, involves "many, many issues" and "potential liability that is so sensitive" that council would want to hear it initially in a closed session.
Well, that's another example of how the relationship between Kilpatrick and the City Council has deteriorated when it comes to respect, cooperation and disclosure of information. This is how they do it: Kilpatrick and council agree upon a course of action; Kilpatrick keeps council ignorant of key information; something goes wrong, and suddenly it's obvious that not everyone involved was well-informed enough to decide that course after all. It seems that Kilpatrick has been holding out on council about what's happening on Livernois.
Whitaker told council members that when you "hear this information, you will be angrier than you are."
Putting the text scandal aside, they're already upset that Kilpatrick defied last summer's council resolution asking for a halt to all construction and development on the three-phase project. Phase 1 seems complete from Eight Mile to just south of Six Mile. In March, Department of Public Works deputy director Ron Brundige bluntly told council's Public Health and Safety Committee, which is chaired by Alberta Tinsley-Talabi and oversees the Livernois issue, that Phase 2 of the median — continuing south almost to Davison — was going to happen. The city started ripping up pavement on Livernois near Puritan on April 8 as scheduled.
I'm curious about all this new information from the Law Department and about the council's reaction to renewed construction. So I called a few council members. Someone in Tinsley-Talabi's office said that she was in recess and unavailable. Brenda Jones' office said that someone would call me back in a few minutes, but nobody called. JoAnn Watson took my call immediately.
That the Livernois project should be delayed, she says, is "not even debatable," and she rattled off a list of community groups, churches and businesses along the route that oppose the plan.
"Every business and every residential group has said 'nix' on Livernois," says Watson. "Citizens have been extraordinarily active about this. ... [Kilpatrick's office] is doing whatever the hell they want to, notwithstanding council action. There's more than one fight going on downtown."
Watson rightfully chided me when I asked her whether she knew the general subject of the "privileged and confidential" information. She would be breaking the law to tell me. Hey, I was curious.
But what could this information be that is so sensitive it entails a potential liability? Is there a problem with the bidding process? Is there a problem with businesses along the route? Could there be issues in the way the city was granted an exemption from performing the federally required environmental impact study for Phase 1? Are we contractually obligated to pay for the median whether it is built or not?
Council voted last week to not have a closed session to hear this information. In the parlance of politics, voting not to have a closed session doesn't mean you have voted for an open session. The council still must decide whether to hear it in an open session. They could always change their minds and go to a closed session.
"I want to see transparency and openness," says Watson, who wants an open session. Whatever the information is we'll probably find out about it eventually. Although by then it may be too late to avoid the "potential liabilities."
In the meantime, even more community organizations are stepping up to stop the Livernois median. This isn't going away with a wave of the mayor's hand, and the plot is sure to thicken.
Tuesday was Earth Day, so let's keep alive that tinge of green in our consciousnesses. The other day I saw someone dump a bag of trash from a fast food restaurant out the window of their car. It's a shame that so many have so little respect for themselves and the place where they live. So many times I've seen the same thing — people, young and old, discarding wrappers and containers, acting like our city is a garbage can. ... Hey, is that a tear running down my cheek?
I recently had the chance to sit down and talk with Mohamad A. Chakaki, an "eco-logical" problem-solver who spoke recently at the annual fundraiser for the environmental program at ACCESS (the Arab Community Center for Social Services). Chakaki is a Syrian-American who holds a master's degree in urban ecology and environmental design from Yale and a young Muslim who believes that sustainable living is a profound duty for people of faith.
Chakaki believes we are designing ourselves out of a meaningful connection to the natural world. Quoting author Richard Lewis, he says that we need to save our children from "nature deficit disorder." He urges families to garden and to bring plants indoors. He believes schools should be designed for more natural light and cities should have more urban greenery.
"You can see the positive effects of nature on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being," he says. "When you have a healthy environment, you have healthy people and vice versa. Studies have shown that schools with more natural light have higher-achieving students."
So, does that mean Detroiters are ill with our polluted environment? That would explain a few things that are going on around here. We need to heal ourselves and our city — and part of that would not be dumping bags of trash out of our cars.
The bottom line, Chakaki says, is that the effort has to come up from people organizing things in their own communities. It's not something that any organization can come in and impose on people. It has to come from the grass roots in order to be effective.
"You can't just plant a tree in your front yard," says Chakaki. "You have to go help your neighbors plant a tree in their front yard as well. And so what happens is you have links forming that wouldn't happen before and you have people coming together around principles that are very neutral, like planting a tree or clearing a vacant lot and trying to organize it into a community garden or a community space. What you're doing is building something called social capital."
We can use all the capital around here that we can raise. Think about it: It's not so much the greenbacks that are going to save Detroit. It's the social capital that will go so much further. People helping each other will build the community we need.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]