Detroit’s Community Leaders discuss what’s needed to repair Michigan’s largest city: Interview with Michigan Forward Chairman & C.E.O., Brandon A. Jessup


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Jessup

ROJS News Interviews: Brandon Jessup of Michigan Forward

Ask a set of 100 suburbanites of their opinions about Michigan’s largest city of Detroit and one might receive five hundred different answers ranging from the area is hopeless, to its’ on the cusp of revitalization.

Thoughts like these from populaces’ who live outside of the City, has been a large part of the issues impeding progress and leading to a mix of thoughts on Detroit for years.

Let’s take the subject back to your personal community. Would a non-stakeholder of Grosse Pointe, Farmington Hills, Ann Arbor, Birmingham or Auburn Hills have correct knowledge on what’s necessary to improve economic stability in the communities? Should non-residents opinions count equality; over thoughts of residents’ who pay tax dollars to maintain municipal operations?

The City of Detroit is nearly $200 Million dollars in debt. Council Members, along with Mayor Bing and Detroit’s Unionized Local Government employees have worked over past couple of months constructing a recovery plan or “Consent Agreement”, to eliminate the City’s budget deficit.

Gov. Rick Snyder (R) with State Treasurer Andy Dillon (D) on December 27, 2011, appointed a “Financial Review Team” under Michigan’s controversial Public Act #4 to decide if an “Emergency Manager” should be appointed to manage operations and fiscal budget affairs for Detroit. The Financial Review Team has 60 days, from their first meeting on January 10, 2012, defining if a Detroit’s “Consent Agreement” is appropriate enough to eliminate its’ budgetary deficit or suggest State Government take control of Michigan’s largest city.

Detroit Public Schools (DPS) former “Emergency Financial Manager” under previous Public Act #72, Robert Bob, was selected by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2009. Robert Bob’s mission was to reduce DPS budget deficit, stop declining student enrollment ratios and improve low test scores.  Three years after embarking on this mission, Mr. Bob failed to repair the problems in the district educational system.

Public Act #4 was passed by Michigan’s Republican controlled State House and Senate, and then quickly signed by Gov. Snyder on March 16, 2011. Roy Roberts, a former General Motors Executive with no public school management experience, was then chosen to run Michigan’s largest school district in May 2012.

DPS after nearly three years of one form or another of “Emergency Management” (EM) still faces a $327 Million dollar budgetary deficit. Last week, E.M. Robert’s announced he would close sixteen of Detroit’s Public Schools, four of them reconverting to a public financed/privately operated charter school operation, under a reorganization plan.
ROJSNews.com will present a series of discussions with actual “stakeholders” deeply connected with daily life and times today in the City of Detroit. Our first interview presents Brandon A. Jessup, C.E.O. of the non-profit government policy “think-tank” Michigan Forward.

Mr. Jessup, a lifelong Detroit resident, is a community advocate, activist for human rights and equal representation of all people. Previously, Jessup has served as the Voter Protection Advocate for the State of Michigan, Regional Coordinator for One United Michigan-the campaign created to oppose and defeat Proposal 2, the anti-Affirmative Action Initiative, formerly a member of NAACP Resolutions Committee, Leadership Committee of the Michigan Voice coalition, Young Democrats of America -Michigan Young Democrats National- Committeeman to the Young Democrats of America and Columnist for the Michigan FrontPage.

As a Graduate of Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Jessup served as a former advisor to the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP. His organization Michigan Forward has led the charge to place a Constitutional Referendum petition drive for state registered voters can decide if Public Act #4 should remain law in Michigan.
1. Would you start off this interview detailing your experience in our state's largest city, Detroit? Specifically, what highlights and/or positive aspects of Detroit, Michigan residents enjoy on a regular basis, which those who don't live in the city wouldn't have knowledge about?
Detroit is a city where a lot of good things happen. When our stereotyping ends with a concept of crime, violence and decay the good actions seem far-fetched. If you follow the city’s news our private sector is growing with the addition of Quicken Loans and the revival of Michigan manufacturing. Detroit’s young people, college graduates and young business professionals are ready for community leadership and we’re doing it almost every way possible.

We have young entrepreneurs such as Phil Cooley, owner of Slow’s BBQ and philanthropist. Detroit Parent Network is leading a magnificent amount of change here in education; bringing parents, resources and Detroit’s schools together for a stronger education system. There’s a type of activism going on down here that’s building a new economy in the city, a robust, diverse one not centered-around a handful of large companies.
2. Detroit has had its share of ups and downs with the economy. Other cities in the Southeastern Michigan community experienced similar difficulties. Why do you believe is Detroit singled out for its fiscal struggles but, in general more suburban areas are not?
First I want to say, there’s a responsibility that comes with being the state’s largest city and population, the state’s eye is constantly on the city of Detroit. We’re the state’s largest and in many cases the state’s major media market. So when Detroit makes a mistake, everyone knows.  
The amount of attention Detroit receives politically, socially and in popular culture shows how important and our influence on the region. We need to be more conscientious of that when we elect our local representatives. 
Detroit isn’t singled out, often it stands alone in its viewpoint and experience, the largest community comparable to the city of Detroit is the city of Warren. Detroit, with as much population loss as its’ had in the past decade, still has three times the residents as its Macomb county neighbor. Politics in the area have changed many public assets in Detroit are a regional responsibility.

We must work closer with the communities that surround us and we need more receptive suburban neighbors in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. We need better community relations within the city and between communities.
3. The national financial crisis according to economists started in 2007. Detroit residents began to feel impacts fiscal issues that would sweep across the U.S. two years prior, in 2005. It appears leadership in State Government focus a "laser-light" on Detroit as example of where communities shouldn't strive to be? Do you believe this is fair or not, and why?
I think state government is where most stereotypes about Detroit and urban areas play out the loudest. It’s not fair, but fairness doesn’t come easily in reality. So it’s’ not a matter of what’s fair, it’s about what’s right and just. The most powerful tool we have in America isn’t the gun, its law. Our housing market is still declining here in the city because our State Government fails to act on behalf of consumers and homeowners.

Billions of dollars have been poured into Michigan’s housing market, yet housing values continue to fall in Detroit. As our State Government makes sweeping cuts to education, sending pink slips to thousands of educators and closing schools the impact is felt largest here in Detroit. As this State Government continues to lower wages and raise taxes on Michigan’s working and middle class, the impact is felt largest here in Detroit.

Both these actions encourage divestment from the nation’s largest financial institutions, makes our community less attractive to the free market. These actions are not fair, right or just our State Government is denying residents from realizing the American dream here.
4. Media resources continually point to crime and violence in Detroit but, underreport these statistics in other areas. Do you believe this might be intentional with presenting Detroit as a violent city that “needs saving” or are factual incorrect? 
Detroit’s crime statistics are more dramatic, they are also easier to understand and unfortunately it’s a larger news story than the crime statistics in Chicago or Flint. It’s bad here in Detroit. A lot of qualified, employable adults are here jobless. Their wages may have stopped, but their bills haven’t. 
Some people are turning to crime to find their way through the day.

Detroit doesn’t need Superman. I know that’s the type of saving that comes to mind. The city isn’t overrun with criminals and villains. It’s overrun with depression, divestment and exclusion.  
5. Detroit could be on the brink an Emergency Manager appointed to control all city Government manners and affairs. If this occurs, residents’ voices to have their grievances addressed by local leaders elected could be eliminated, as an Emergency Manager is accountable to Governor Rick Snyder and Treasurer Andy Dillon. Do you believe if the state takes over city operations, the action would improve relations between Detroit's residents, state Governmental leaders or an appointed Emergency Manager? 
No, the appointment of an Emergency Manager will not improve relations between Detroit residents. Emergency Management is a process designed to pay a municipality’s largest creditors.
6. During former Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration, Detroit received a series of "empowerment zones" to focus on redevelopment, creating employment opportunities and promote positive aspects of the city. Would a return to "empowerment zones" improve the long-term financial outlook for Detroit? What other ideas you, with your experience, believe could assist Detroit communities?
The entire city needs empowerment, empowerment zones work well in communities with tax bases that haven’t been highly leveraged. Detroit homeowners pay some of the highest taxes in the state, so we’d have to find a way to fund an investment without raising taxes. The most unattractive element in Detroit’s economy is how over leveraged the community is. One third of the community’s eligible workforce funds one-hundred percent of the city’s services.  
Empowerment zones are a start but the city needs to reform its tax system. The same can be found in other post-manufacturing cities in Michigan. This is where the state and local governments can work together on reforming revenue sharing; we’ll be introducing suggestions here at Michigan Forward.
7. Media reports about how if Detroit -Michigan's largest city with a high minority population- receives an Emergency Manager under Public Act #4, over 50% of minorities statewide would lose localized elected representation. Do you believe this action could impact election voting affairs’, equal representation Detroit residents’ concerns in Lansing or Washington, D.C. or empathize communities with minority population can't manage effectively to operate local government affairs without state assistance?
Voter disenfranchisement is in the DNA of Michigan’s Emergency Manager Policy. Public Act 4 disenfranchises through disengagement, from beginning to end. Emergency Managers are not accountable to the public; they are political appointees with absolute authority. In Flint, Pontiac and Benton Harbor each community’s legislative body are silenced this is the ultimate in voter disenfranchisement. Pontiac’s emergency manager fired the city clerk, days before an election to insert his own appointee.

Our local clerks administer our local, state and national elections. If Emergency Managers can fire elected officials at will, especially election officials the vote is no longer safe in Michigan. Here is where Michigan’s Public Act 4 functions as a poll tax against financially strapped communities.  
8. If an Emergency Manager is appointed, privatization of public assets like the Detroit Water Department -which services nearly all of Southeastern Michigan-, Belle Isle, Museums, Libraries, city owned land or properly could be lost to Detroit citizens who paid tax dollars for decades to maintain these domains. Do you feel, the citizens of Detroit would agree that a Emergency Manager appointed by Public Act #4 should have rights to sell public works, land or properties to the highest privatized bidder? 
No, Detroiters have fought against the sale of public assets in the past and symbolize that sentiment in our petition to repeal Public Act 4.
9. Let's briefly touch on Detroit Public Schools (DPS). As you know, former Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bob was brought in by the Granholm administration to boost enrollment rates, increase standardized test scores and stabilize financial reporting for DPS. After the Robert Bob's contract ended, Gov. Snyder appointed Roy Roberts to as Emergency Manager Position under Public Act #4. For the last four years, DPS has been under some form of "Emergency Management". In your discussions with DPS parents, has state control of their school system worked to improve academic and financial management areas promised by state authorizes?
In my discussions with many in the DPS community, there’s little change in Detroit education environment overall, regardless is the school is DPS or charter. The education industry is failing here in Detroit and everyone is accountable.

Roy Roberts applauds approximately 70,000 enrolling students 2011-12 when the “demand” for education or the number of school aged children in Detroit is over 100,000. Enrollment plans should focus on capturing more market share, not maintaining it. Emergency Managements largest failure to date is Detroit Public Schools, which now has a $327 million deficit.  
10. In closing, what in your opinion as a community leader in Detroit, what's needed to return our Michigan's largest city back into the jewel city residents desire it to be?
The new city charter provides a good foundation on right sizing Detroit and getting our local government back on track. The city’s financial house has to get in order and that takes Michigan’s state government working in partnership with Detroit to identify a new system of revenue sharing. Priority is diversifying our economy.

That means the financial industry must embrace Detroit with open arms to invest in our small businesses, stabilize our housing values and providing access to capital for entrepreneurs.
The second of ROJSNews.com series of interviews with Detroit’s Community Leaders, will feature Rev. D. Alexander Bullock of the National Rainbow Push Organization-Detroit Affiliate

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