Hey Hey, Detroit!
We’ve slimmed down this newsletter edition to allow for in-depth coverage on a few meetings from last week. We also take a more questioning look at the Detroit Board of Ethics, which canceled yet another meeting. Be sure to check out the other meetings we documented in the “More Coverage” section.
Documenters don’t just share what officials do at their meetings — sometimes we share what they don’t do. We also take note of how they do it. Are officials respectful of the public, one another and their staff? Are their meetings productive or chaotic, and are they doing the work their positions require? Do officials’ meetings even happen?
Sometimes it takes a few everyday people to break things down in a way we can all understand. That’s why official meeting minutes or a transcript will never compare to the work of Documenters.
“From the mouth of a child!”
—Audience members at a Detroit public school board meeting, applauding students who rallied against potential cuts to college transition advisor positions
New members appointed to the Detroit Board of Ethics
We’ve been wondering when these seats would be filled, as meeting after meeting has been canceled due to not having a quorum. In fact, every Board of Ethics meeting we’ve covered has been delayed for the same reason.
The Detroit Board of Ethics has struggled to meet in 2023, with only five members serving on the seven-seat board. Four members must be present in order to conduct business. According to the board’s own 2023 meeting schedule, every regularly scheduled meeting this year has been canceled, and the only time the board has met this year was for a successful rescheduling that happened Feb. 23.
April’s meeting on Wednesday was no different. We checked the board’s website for an agenda an hour before the meeting was scheduled. Instead, we found the meeting notice posted with “CANCELED” stamped over it. We called the office and spoke with Investigator Dawn Widman, who confirmed the meeting was canceled due to not having a quorum.
Though the city never noted the cancellation on its events calendar, Widman said she was glad to hear the notice was on the board’s website. She said posting updates can be a challenge with a team of just four people. We can tell.
The Meetings & Archives menu has seven options, but few are helpful. Next Meeting Agenda shows the agenda from Feb. 23, now two months old. Meeting Minutes only displays folders of documents from 2002 to 2021. Opening the 2021 folder displays a single file that isn’t even minutes: It’s an agenda from March 16 of that year. And the Annual Reports page is missing the most recent report for 2022.
Despite the outdated website, the staff has been responsive to our questions. Ethics Coordinator Vanessa Johnson emailed us a copy of the 2022 Annual Report after we inquired. And after reaching out on Monday with questions about the two unfilled seats, Executive Director Christal Phillips informed us that the seats were recently filled.
The Detroit City Charter states that for the seven-seat board, three members shall be appointed by City Council, three by the mayor, and one jointly appointed by the mayor and City Council. Phillips told us that Carron Pinkins was recently appointed by City Council, and Urrond Williams was appointed by the mayor. However, another member — Mario Morrow Sr. — is leaving May 31, and Phillips said the board has already reached out to City Council to get Morrow’s seat filled as soon as possible.
Phillips said Pinkins was sworn in on April 19, to fill the seat left vacant by Freda Sampson in April 2021. Williams fills the seat left by Byron Osbern in December 2022, and was sworn in on April 14. Although Morrow will step down next month, for the time being, the city has a full Board of Ethics.
The Highland Park City Council voted 3-2 last Monday to proceed into Chapter 9 bankruptcy and seek an expedited approval of its request by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (We examine what a Chapter 9 bankruptcy is later in the newsletter.) The matter at hand is a $24 million debt owed to the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) for more than 10 years of water and sewerage service to the city of Highland Park.
The council’s concern is that GLWA will levy additional property taxes against Highland Park residents to recover the debt. This does not sit well with residents — many of whom have paid their water bills every month — or with property owners who fear losing their homes or businesses to foreclosure if they cannot afford to pay the higher taxes.
Residents at the meeting spoke both for and against bankruptcy. Several who were opposed were retirees concerned they may lose their pensions. A 70-year resident of Highland Park was in favor of bankruptcy, noting that the city of Detroit was able to flourish after filing Chapter 9.
On Thursday, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Edward Joseph denied Highland Park’s request for a stay on a previous ruling allowing GLWA to recover the debt from the city’s residents and businesses. This followed the Michigan Supreme Court’s rejection of Highland Park’s request to appeal the same ruling. The judge said the city will have to work with GLWA to devise a payment plan by May 31.
Bankruptcy would interrupt that repayment plan, but Whitmer’s office didn’t sound eager to expedite anything, with her spokesperson saying Highland Park “cannot skip to the end.”
4/17/2023 Highland Park City Council
Documented by Ashley Williams and Eric Walton.
Student voices came out loud and strong during Tuesday night’s Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) board meeting. With student remarks now being a permanent part of the agenda, Student Ambassadors Lauren Hatten and Amara Small were back before the school board just a month after convincing the district to change the water filters at The School at Marygrove. The students posed several challenging questions to the administration about the budget and funding priorities.
During public comment, more students, together with parents, teachers and DPSCD staff, admonished the district and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti in particular for about 50 buyouts and additional layoffs that occurred without warning “days before the Holy Days,” as Detroit Federation of Teachers President Lakia Wilson-Lumpkins said. For three hours, public commenters implored the board to reinstate these jobs and not cut any more.
Students were particularly adamant about keeping college transition advisors, especially in light of the district’s goal to foster college and career readiness. Their statements were met with applause and cheers of affirmation. Vitti said DPSCD could either increase teacher pay or keep paraprofessionals and administrators — not both. Board members said they discussed that at a staff retreat but never agreed to it. Board Chair Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said the board would talk about the budget at Thursday’s study session, which would be open to public comment. The board expects to approve the budget in June.
4/18/2023 DPSCD Board of Education, Regular Meeting
Documented by Anna Harris and Devyn McNaughton.
(4/18) Detroit City Council, Formal Session: Whitfield Calloway asks the Legislative Policy Division to work with city departments to draft a report on using traffic closures in Greektown to combat crime.
(4/19) Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, Full Board Meeting: DWIHN teams up with Sports Psychology Solutions to use high school sports to promote mental health messages on social media.
(4/20) Wayne County Land Bank, Board of Directors: Board approves more than $1 million in various grants to be used for home repair and other development projects throughout the county.
(4/20) Detroit Board of Police Commissioners: Bryan Ferguson’s last day as chair is July 1. Board struggles to conduct business as the meeting begins and ends without a quorum.
Question of the Week
At Monday’s Highland Park City Council meeting, councilmembers voted to proceed into Chapter 9 bankruptcy. We wondered…
What is Chapter 9 bankruptcy, and how does it differ from other bankruptcies?
Chapter 9 bankruptcies are reserved for municipalities. This includes cities, counties, townships, school districts and public improvement districts. They can also be used by revenue-producing bodies such as bridge, highway and gas authorities.
The one thing that sets Chapter 9 apart is the lack of a provision for the liquidation of assets and distribution of proceeds to creditors. Instead, the bankruptcy court in Chapter 9 cases is tasked with approving the petition (what Highland Park awaits), developing a plan to address the unpaid debt (which may include the selling of assets), and ensuring the plan is implemented.
The largest ever municipal bankruptcy filing occurred on July 18, 2013, when the City of Detroit filed for Chapter 9.
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