A Heart for the City. Show Up, Speak Up!

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Khary Frazier Interviews Krystal Crittendon

Khary Frazier: Thank you so much. We’re trying to get information out for this local election season. But can you tell us a little about yourself?

Krystal Crittendon: This is really, really important. Unless people know how their government is supposed to work, they don’t know when it’s not working.

I’m an attorney, born and raised in Detroit. I have spent all of my professional legal career at the City of Detroit Law Department. I didn’t mean to stay this long, but I realized that Detroit, the city that I love, is entitled to quality legal representation, so I haven’t been able to make myself leave.I was appointed Corporation Counsel by Ken Cockerel and then again by Dave Bing. I’m currently a supervisor in a litigation section.

KF: And you are the point person that many people call upon when you have questions about city government.

 From a legal perspective, what should citizens expect from the mayor and city council? 

KC:  The Home Rule Act, a state statute, was adopted by the Michigan legislature.

If you want to incorporate as a city or a township village or a city there are certain things that you have to do in order to be an incorporated city. You have to adopt a charter, and under that charter, you decide what type of city you want to have. In Michigan, you can have either a weak or a strong mayoral form or government.  Most cities, like Detroit, have a strong mayor form.

The mayor is the highest elected official. He gets to make all of the decisions when it comes to appointing people who will deliver services. He appoints all the department heads under the Charter. People decide which departments their city government is going to have in the Charter, and the mayor appoints the department directors. Each of those departments, transportation, public works, water and sewage services, police, and fire are departments that are called for by the Charter, is answerable to the mayor.

Under our Charter, we  have a legislative body as well, so the Detroit City Council is the legislature. They have the power to adopt local ordinances that are the laws of the city.

The City Council also oversees the budget and approves contracts. They have control of the purse strings for the city.

People often show up at City Council meetings if things are not working.  But City Council is the legislative branch of government, they don’t have control over any of the department heads, so if you’ve got a big pothole in front of your house that you want to have patched, or you have a home across the street that needs to be demolished, or your street light on the corner is not working, people will often take that issue to the city council meetings. In reality, it’s the Mayor who has the authority and the responsibility of making sure that those department directors dispatch employees to take care of those problems for you. 

The City Council is the public face of the city because they meet in open sessions and they have a public meeting at least once per week. It’s on TV, they have public comments where people express their concerns. But in terms of actually getting most problems remediated, it’s the mayor who people need to be contacting. The mayor’s office needs to be bombarded with questions and complaints if there is some executive function not working.

The money that supports these services are our tax dollars and grant money. 

The police officers in your neighborhood, the fire department, streetlights, and all public services are paid for either from money that is given to the city from another branch of government or appropriations of our property taxes, income taxes, or whatever goes into the general fund. That money is used to deliver services so you have not only a right to speak up, you have the responsibility to speak up. 

KF: And that leads to my second question. Mayors, as the city CEO, carry out the policy set forth by Council.   What’s the difference between a law and a policy?

KC: Policy does not have the effect of law.  A policy is usually for internal administration. You might have a policy that people can’t wear open-toed shoes to work, but you can’t get a civil infraction or a misdemeanor for violating a policy. An ordinance that is a law, so you can actually be prosecuted or fined for violating the law.  A city ordinance is the equivalent on the local level of laws adopted by the state legislature. The City Council also passes something called resolutions. These are usually for an event, they’re not long-term. 

KF:  Understanding the language is so important because it can get overwhelming and confusing. In our municipal structure, there are also boards, commissions, and task forces. What role do these play in the city of Detroit?

KC: Great question. Let’s start with the Charter. The charter is crafted by a Charter Commission, but it has to be put before the people for a vote.  The Charter is the governing document for the city, if it is approved, it becomes the Bible. The Charter tells us what elected offices the people want, what appointed positions they want, what departments, and what services they want their city to deliver. Neither a mayor nor a city council can do anything other than what is identified in that Charter. In creating the Charter people identify what departments we couldn’t do without. Departments are simply responsible for delivering the Charter mandated services. 

KF: Okay, but what is the Commission?

KC: So commissions are set forth in the Charter. Or the mayor and City Council may empanel commission’s that are usually identified in the Charter.

With the exception of the Charter mandated commissions, they’re also commissions that can be identified for a specific purpose, the same as Task Force.  For example, you might find out that there is a problem with racism within a particular department, so someone could empanel a Commission. The commission will come together to investigate, they’ll conduct interviews and, at the end of that, they’ll prepare a report and recommend changes that could help remediate whatever problem was identified. Some commissions are charter mandated, like the  Board of Police commissioner’s that was put in a charter after the 1967 riots.

On all commissions and boards, the Charter allows the mayor to pay people for certain positions and others are volunteers. There’s some school of thought that if you volunteer your time, your talent, your energy, and your resources, you will be a more honest broker.  You’re doing this work because you’re interested in the subject area and you are committed to the city. People who have more of a heart for the issue are drawn to the position.  There are other people who think not paying folks is problematic. So you know whether you’re paid or not paid, the key is to make sure that you put the right people in the right positions. We need the right people who have a heart for the people, heart for the city, because we’ve seen examples of people who are getting paid good salaries and they are not beholden to people.

We’ve seen situations where people weren’t getting paid at all and they were the most honest people that you could have for the job. No matter what type of government, the key is to make sure that you’re putting people who want the job in the right room for the right reasons. 

We’ve had elected officials who have not served us well before. We’ve had some great elected officials and we’ve had some who weren’t so great.  When you’re selecting a mayor, it can be argued that you trust his decision-making when it comes to his appointments. If you can’t trust that person to make appointments, that person shouldn’t have been elected in the first place.

Centralizing authority in one person who hopefully has a larger vision for the city, instead of piecemealing authority out to several different people has some advantages.  With the 2012 Charter, we went to council districts.  We cut the city up into seven big pieces, seven different districts, and then we elect one person from each district and two members at large. 

I thought when that happened we were putting more authority in each Council person. But it really didn’t, because all of the executive functions are still under the control of the mayor.  So having a strong mayor form of government with a Council by District kind of creates conflict. 

KF: Arguably, the district managers, appointed by the Mayor, have more power than the elected Councilperson to actually get something done. And that leads me to a question about that Department of Neighborhoods. How do we bring back something that was once in the city charter but no longer exists?

KC: The City Council would have to vote to do it. If we don’t have an ordinance that authorizes it, someone would have to bring it to the table. Then, if the Council agrees, it would pass an ordinance by a simple majority. Then it goes to the mayor’s office.  If the Mayor vetoes it, then it goes back to City Council. The Council has the authority to override the mayor’s veto, but they need a supermajority, so they need at least six votes out of the nine in order to override. If they do override the Mayor, then that ordinance becomes law.

KF: So what responsibility does Council  have?

KC: There’s a system of checks and balances. The people don’t want either branch of government to dominate. If the Mayor wants to do something and he’s going to need money from the city coffers, the City Council has to approve that expenditure.  The Mayor can’t just create departments, can’t even hire certain people if it’s not within a budget that has been approved by City Council. 

The Council can also enact new ordinances if they get a majority to agree. The Council can adopt an ordinance, but the Mayor can also veto it.  So there’s a check on both of their authority so neither the Mayor nor City Council is able to act without trying at least to work collaboratively with the other branch of government.

KF: And, and that leads me right into another question about money coming into the city. The city has business partnerships. How do these public-private partnerships work?  Does a public-private partnership change the authority in the city?.

KC: So under the city Charter any gift to the city has to be approved by City Council. These public-private partnerships are set up so private industry is actually paying the money, so there’s nothing for Council to approve, other than the total gift. As long as it’s not taxpayer money, the City Council doesn’t have any role in deciding how the money is spent.  But if we are talking about a situation where there is a  contribution by the City in conjunction with the private industry, then City Council would have to approve the expenditure. 

KF: Another entity connected to the city are agencies like the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DECG). How does that entity function?

KC: So the DEGC was created by State law to help facilitate certain transactions within the city government. 

KF: So it’s almost like the DBA and the DEGC and other agencies are independent bodies that just have relationships with city government, correct?

KC: State law allows these alphabet agencies to exist outside of city government. This means these partnerships are not as open as City Council. They are not subject to the Open Meetings Act, which means they are not required to deliberate in public anytime they’re debating an issue that will affect the city.  We have to look at how the back door decisions and backroom decisions are made by these other organizations because they’re not done in a public area.

KF: As we come to a close, I want to discuss every little bit of your opinion of where things are with the revisions to the city charter, what should we be looking for? 

KC: First of all, you have to elect people who are willing to actually read the Charter and figure out what their responsibilities and rights and obligations are to the people. And we need people  who are committed to doing the work for the right reasons. No matter what the Charter says, if you don’t have the right person in office, it doesn’t really matter, because people are going to do what it is they want to do. 

But we, as the electorate, have an obligation as well. We need to speak up and let our elected officials know that they work for us, and if they do or don’t do what we want them to do, then we’re going to hold them accountable. There are too many people who know they can disregard the will of the people, know they can disregard their Charter mandated responsibilities, and still live comfortably among us, because you know we’re not going to call them out when we see them in the grocery store.  We’re not even going to show up to City Council. There aren’t enough of us engaged, and so many people know they can disregard our will and still get reelected.  

Unless and until that changes, I’m not sure that it matters what the Charter says, or what State law or Federal law says. 

We have got to identify the right people to put in office, support them, and make sure that when people are not doing what it is they’re required to do, they don’t get reelected.  We need to show up and speak up more often and more frequently than we do.  

The best way to show up, to speak up, is to make sure that you vote in every election, because you know voting once every four years for President is fine, but your life is affected by what happens on a local level every day. The people who are making decisions for you at the City Council table or the county Commission table are the people who we need to let know that we’re watching and we have certain expectations of them.

KF: Definitely, thank you, thank you so much. I definitely feel like i’ve been schooled.