Why Does This Matter?

Our local elected officials play a vital role in the democratic process. They serve as our representatives in local government, work for our local interests. We rely on them to represent our needs and advocate for our communities through good public policy. Public policy refers to rules, laws, and budget decisions that are made at all levels of government –– local, state, and federal. These decisions determine how we as citizens are expected behave, the role government plays in our lives, and the kind of support local government can provide to our communities. The City of Detroit has a big responsibility to make sure its citizens are well represented and its communities are served well.

But how do we make sure local government is doing its job? How do we make sure that our elected officials and other public servants are being effective, making smart decisions, and truly representing the needs of all Detroiters? We can begin to find answers by looking back at the question that drives this manual –– what does it mean to be an engaged citizen of Detroit? As citizens, we have rights and responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to ensure local government is doing its job. An engaged citizen holds local government accountable.

Accountability has to do with the relationship between what the government is legally responsible for and what citizens expect of the government, compared with what the government actually does. It deals with questions of government processes, government oversight, of government actions, and public policy outcomes. 

We should consider these four points:

  • Are procedures fair and transparent?
  • Who monitors government from the inside?
  • Do our elected officials advocate for public policies we favor?
  • Do they reflect our preferences as citizens? 

All of these questions are important to consider as engaged citizens. It can help us measure how our local government is performing. Government accountability is important for building trust and confidence with our elected leaders and government officials.

So, what does accountability look like in the City of Detroit?

Connecting the Dots

Consider this: If a friend or family member makes a promise or commitment, you expect them to follow through and honor that commitment, right? The same is true of local government, but with one difference: not only is it committed to its citizens, there are different layers of oversight, or supervision, to ensure that these commitments are honored. Oversight takes place at the local, state, federal and –– you might be surprised at this –– the citizen level. So, in addition to certain government offices, you, your friends and neighbors, all of us have oversight over local government.

State and Federal Oversight

One way accountability can be enforced is through government oversight. We can think of government oversight as the supervision of all government processes, officials, branches, agencies, and departments. As we learned in Lesson 2, the City is responsible for following all state and federal laws. According to Michigan’s 1909 Home Rule Act, cities like Detroit could adopt their own charters as long as they comply with laws that are established by the Michigan Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. Beyond following the law, the State has a special interest in the health and success of its cities because of their close legal relationship. 

Remember: Local governments in Michigan are creations of the State. This means state constitutions allow local governments to take on some responsibilities of state government, and state laws define who does what between local and state governments. The City of Detroit only can do what the State enables it to do. If the city oversteps the authority granted by the State, the State can hold the City accountable.

Let’s think about this in terms of gun laws. According to state law, Cities (not the State) issue gun permits, but permit guidelines have to follow state law. For example, the City cannot allow people under 18 to receive gun permits,  because state law requires you to be 18 or older to receive a gun permit.

Because of this relationship, the State may monitor –– or keep an eye on –– a City’s finances, its ability to provide public services, and its ability to hold fair elections. Examples of this are the State’s Uniform Budgeting and Accounting Act 2 of 1968 and Public Act 621 of 1978 (a law that prevents local governments from spending more than they have). These laws are used as a form of State oversight over the City’s finances. They establish ground rules for ways Cities can create and manage their annual balanced budget. If a City fails to do those things, the State may step in with resources, support, or punitive measures –– which simply means to punish or hold the City accountable –– in order to keep the City on track. Similarly, the federal government ensures that local governments are following federal law. 

Along with the four independent departments and offices mentioned in Responsibilities, there are a few other offices that provide oversight for city government in Detroit.

  • Board of Ethics – responsible for investigating and resolving complaints regarding violations of the Ethics Ordinance by city government officials. The Board has seven members who are appointed either by the mayor or the City Council.
  • Board of Police Commissioners – responsible for providing oversight for the Detroit Police Department, reviewing and approving department policies and the budget, and receiving and resolving citizen complaints concerning the operations of the Police Department. This Board has eleven members, seven of which are elected by City Council district (one per district) and four of which are appointed by the mayor.

Citizen Oversight

Elections are the most important tool for enforcing accountability in government; and in a democratic system, citizens serve as the government’s main source of accountability. It is one of our most important responsibilities as citizens. We can hold government accountable in a variety of ways, but exercising our right to vote serves as the primary method.

Let’s use a school as an analogy. Think of yourself as the principal, or supervisor, of a school in a large school district. In this analogy, the City of Detroit is the school. Think of our elected officials as employees that work for the school–teachers, custodians, office staff, etc. As supervisors, we are responsible for the performance of our employees. We watch them to make sure they are doing their jobs. If they don’t perform as they are expected, we have the authority to fire them. The same logic can be used to understand our role as citizens in the electoral process. The electoral process describes the flow of responsibility and accountability that exists between the City and its citizens.

We give power to elected officials through periodic elections and they represent or act on our interests. In doing so, we assume the role of a supervisor. Our elected officials become accountable to us in the same way that employees are accountable to their supervisors. As a result, it becomes our responsibility to make sure that elected officials are doing their job. Elections provide us with the opportunity to hold our elected officials accountable in the electoral process. 

State law and our city charter give us, as citizens of Detroit, other tools to enforce government accountability; specifically, there are two ways we can place laws on the ballot and we can vote on them. If City Council fails to enact ordinances that represent our interests, we can use the initiative. Initiatives also allow citizens to vote to pass a new city ordinance without the use of the legislative branch. We also have the power to remove existing city ordinances through the use of the referendum. Both processes require citizens to gather petition signatures from Detroit voters before the initiative or referendum can appear on the ballot in an election. If more than 50% of Detroiters approve the initiative or referendum on the ballot, then it passes.

Local Oversight

Locally, this responsibility of government oversight has been the job of the legislative branch (City Council). But, there are a few other major offices within city government worth mentioning that deal with various aspects of oversight, investigation, and reporting of city government activity.  The city charter outlines a series of “Independent Departments and Offices,” some of which were newly created or more empowered after the 2012 revision of the city charter. These offices include the:

OfficeWhy It’s Important
Office of the Auditor General (AG) – responsible for performing independent audits of the financial transactions, performances, and operations of City agencies.The City should be spending money responsibly. Audits review transactions and report where the City is doing well and where it needs to improve related to finances.
Office of the Inspector General (OIG) – responsible for identifying and preventing waste, abuse, fraud, and corruption. The Inspector General has the power to investigate any elected official, City employee, department, program, active contractor, or business seeking a contract with the City.Fraud, waste, and abuse are three different ways an individual, or group of individuals, can harm an office or department by mismanaging money, committing illegal acts, or being careless.  Anyone can report fraud, waste, and/or abuse (anonymously if you wish) to the OIG and it will be investigated plus recommendations for what to do next will be made.
Corporation Counselresponsible for leading the City’s Law Department and serving as the City’s lawyer. This individual enforces the city charter and documents when anyone in city government violates the charter, including the executive and legislative branches.If an individual sues the City for example, Corporation Counsel defends the City in court. This person and the law department also provide legal reviews and recommendations to city officials including supporting the review and development of ordinance language. As an independent department, Corporation Counsel can also legally challenge the Mayor or City Council.
Ombudsperson – responsible for serving as a liaison between city government and members of the public who have a complaint or a question about City operations. The Ombudsperson can investigate any agency, except for elected officials.Similar to the OIG, this office connects public complaints with investigations of City operations. Public complaints are made confidentially.

Lesson Review

Take a second to reflect on your neighborhood and the city. Think about the types of public policy the City creates and how it impacts your community. Write a brief essay discussing how public policy affects your life and your community. What would you consider to be good public policy, and why? What would you consider to be bad public policy, and why? Are any of these policies present in your community? If so, how do they impact your life? Use specific examples and evidence from relevant sources such as city newspapers, the City’s website, or personal accounts.