Honest Government Is Better Detroit

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    Innovative good governance summit to address public trust, private sector role

     

    Detroit, there is an urgent need for an open, transparent and an integrity driven government at city hall, especially at a time when Detroit, come November, will be seeking political leadership in a new mayor and new city council by districts.

    Truth be told, Detroit has gone through countless trials and tribulations both historical and contemporary- but nothing perhaps has been more painful and disturbing than the “pay to play” reputation it garnered in the last decade, to the point that hardly anything passes the smell test.

    And none of the candidates running for various offices in the city have adequately addressed the cancer of public malfeasance that has eaten deep into the fabric of a machinery that is supposed to cater to the wellbeing of its hard-pressed taxpayers. Very seldom do we hear about any effort to address the internal inconsistencies that have led to widespread dishonesty and fraudulent conduct among those who occupy public office.

    THAT IS why the first Leadership Summit on Good Governance for Detroit, convened by U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade and taking place Oct 21, 9-3 pm at Wayne State Law School, is very timely and richly deserving of support from Detroit taxpayers who have seen their confidence and hope in public officials shattered by a stubborn “pay to play” culture in high places.

    Sponsored by the Federal Bar Association (FBA) and Wayne State University Law School, the summit theme, “Building An Honest & Open Government in Detroit: Why Public Integrity Matters,” strikes at the very core of the sometimes negative designation of Detroit as a corruption cesspool.

    But to change that designation is to first build a culture of an honest and open government where all stakeholders, from regular Detroiters to civic, political and business leaders, embrace public integrity as the defining model for any effective and functioning government.

    If we care about how the next mayor or city council will address public integrity, public trust, the role of the private sector and community, and the rule of law, it begins with the Oct. 21 dialogue at Wayne State where U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will open the summit with videotaped remarks, followed by a “Media Gatekeepers Roundtable” featuring Paul Anger, publisher of the Detroit Free Press, and Rob Davidek, program and news director of WWJ 950 AM CBS Radio, among others.

    A SERIES of interesting panel discussions on where public and private sector governance meets the rule of law, fighting public corruption among hot button topics and featuring speakers from a broad range of backgrounds will be the focus of the summit.

    Detroit’s inspector general, James Heath, and Rev. Bertram Marks, general counsel of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors, are among some of the summit speakers.

    Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans founder and Chairman, will appear for a special conversation about Detroit, its prospects and the future in light of its current struggles.

    Often bad governance has prevented reputable individuals in the community from seeking office because they don’t want to be tainted or become part of any regime that fails to do business with the citizens and the private sector in a way that is above board. They don’t want to be part of any department that cannot address the needs of the residents without clean hands. They refuse to be on a political bandwagon that accepts that public corruption is too often the rule and you have to know the rule to play the game. That is unacceptable. Integrity and probity should be the cardinal rule on which any serious minded government or public official should conduct the business of taxpayers.

    SO OFTEN the failure to identify intelligent, results-driven and creative talents who will serve in our local government is directly tied to the carnage of public malfeasance we witnessed in the lost decade in Detroit, that permeated every level of city hall evidenced by the number of convictions in this city by authorities.

    The unbelievable tales of how business was done, why it was done, the meeting places where it was done and who was pulling the strings to get it done, provided an unusual insight into the mindset of those who were charged with governing the affairs of this great city. The tales, as laid out in the pages of newspapers, were sometimes stranger than fiction.

    Certainly it would be unfair to talk or condemn that level of public arrogance by wrong-headed officials who felt inoculated by power without their sit-tight external collaborators, those in the private sector who felt comfortable and powerful enough, thought they were larger than life and sometimes initiated the practice of defrauding the public trust, the ultimate symbol of public confidence in government.

    We should no longer accept the premise that integrity must be sacrificed to do business with Detroit’s government. Accepting that notion means we are seriously and sadly capitulating to the idea that we cannot fight for integrity and honesty to protect taxpayer investments.

    ATTORNEY Marks, one of the Leadership Summit speakers, said public trust is key for Detroit’s comeback.

    “Detroiters need to be inspired that a resurgence of the city is what is really occurring. The key to providing this desperately needed inspiration is transparency and a true commitment to honest, service oriented government,” Marks said. “It is truly amazing what people will support when they believe that their well-being is the goal of a person they have elected to represent their interests. The element of integrity in politics is missing not only in Detroit but also in big city governments across the nation. Detroit has a real opportunity for a major paradigm shift.”

    The whole notion of government accountability is rooted in the idea of strong democratic governance. That those who seek public office must bring with them accountability as a virtue and a way of life. That elected and public officials sworn to protect the public’s interests must conduct themselves always in and outside of their offices in a way that shows accountability, qualities and attributes deserving of anyone who should be trusted with the public coffers.

    BUT GOVERNMENT accountability is also a process of how our officials do business interpreting statues and laws that are supposed to be the abiding principles for carrying out the business of the people. And in some cases those public officials who want to violate the written rules have a tendency to give themselves a free ride by ensuring that it applies to everyone else working in a government bureaucracy except them.

    That is the reason why whistle blowers have served the public diligently as a checkmate to those who believe that they have to define what ethics and accountability means, irrespective of what the law requires, and what the limits are.

    In our current political dispensation, the most visible and important example in seeking an honest government is the saga of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was convicted in a sweeping federal corruption trial and is now awaiting sentencing in early October.

    Looking back, a lot of things went wrong with the Kilpatrick administration and even administrations that date back to the early sixties. Some attribute the Kilpatrick era to hubris, others say it was youthful exuberance, and some politicos describe it as pure political machination that just did not work in favor of those who were in power.

    There is a lesson to be learned from that era which still lingers on. Because the price that honest men and women pay for keeping quiet is to have dishonest, easily manipulated and incompetent and compromised officials rule over them. The price that most Detroit’s civic leaders paid for being silent was to watch the city’s reputation disparaged. So much hope was squandered. So much opportunity was missed. So much inspiration was killed. So much of what Detroit represented to inspire a new generation was taken away in the lost decade.

    THE LEADERSHIP challenge the city now faces owes itself to that era. And the challenge for the next leadership is to ensure that such a thing never happens again.

    The current candidates must be pushed to give an extensive accountability plan because what existed before in city government failed. It did not deter officials from crossing the red line in a bid to satisfy their personal ends while giving the public a rosy picture of a government that was supposedly at work for taxpayers. This was the ultimate political deception.

    “Public corruption is so harmful because it erodes trust in government, which makes government less effective. This forum will provide an opportunity to share ideas about ensuring the honest government that all of our citizens deserve,” said McQuade.

    FEDERAL BAR Association Chapter President Michael K. Lee stated, “The power of elected officials is derived solely from the willingness of the people to agree to that governance. That willingness is contingent on the credibility of those in public office as seen through the eyes of that populace. A primary tool that a populace uses to measure that credibility is transparency, by which a populace can measure honesty and integrity.”

    Wayne’s Law Dean Jocelyn Benson said this about the summit:

    “An honest and open government is the most basic part of maintaining the public trust and reinforcing the democratic process. Wayne Law School is thrilled to be hosting this event focused on how the public, private and non-profit sectors can work together to ensure municipal government in Detroit is transparent and accountable.”

    As the moderator of the summit, I look forward to an engaging forum that achieves one thing — sets Detroit on a new course of accountability, fairness and integrity in local government.

    To register for the summit contact the Wayne State University Law School Community Relations Department at (313) 577-2733.

    Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of the forthcoming 2014 book on Detroit titled “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future with Courage.” His most recent book “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and visit http://www.bankolethompson.com.

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