Detroit’s Reparations Task Force should be headed by appointees hand-selected by City Council President Mary Sheffield and could include council members themselves, according to resolution drafted by the council’s legal staff.
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The process for seating the proposed 13-member task force was drafted last week by the council’s Legislative Policy Division as the latest move in a voter-approved process to address historic discrimination agast Black Detroiters. LPD is proposing that the task force be helmed by a four-member executive committee appointed by Sheffield and filled out with nine members who are nominated and confirmed by the City Council.
Brian White, chief of staff for the council president, said Sheffield would prefer that members of the council not serve on the reparations task force. Messages left with the Legislative Policy Division were not returned Monday.
“(Sheffield) wanted this to be a very community driven, organic process that’s led by the individuals on the task force with council doing his part to get it on the ballot and set forth the framework and allow people the autonomy to get the work done,” White said. “People are still digesting the information submitted by the Legislative Policy Division, and I suspect that there’ll be plenty of discussions happening in the next couple of weeks.”
Lauren Hood, chairwoman of the Detroit City Planning Commission and a member of the steering committee convened to gather feedback on the task force, expressed some concern that council members could nominate themselves to serve on the task force. However, she said, it hasn’t been uncommon for members to serve on other kinds of city task forces.
“Would there be an unspoken power dynamic that goes on where some people feel like their opinion mattered more than others?,” Hood said. “If there’s a precedent for a task force that is a mixed group of elected (officials) and other kinds of experts, maybe that’s not an issue.”
Hood said she’s largely supportive of the structure proposed by LPD.
“It’s pretty straightforward based on what was said in the community meeting and the survey responses that we got, so we are responsive to what the public said in terms of what they want,” Hood said. “It’s the way it’s set up as the most democratic means of getting that accomplished.”
The task force will be responsible for recommending housing and economic development programs to reverse historic inequities. LPD flagged June 1 as the preferred target date to have all 13 positions filled. The City Council will first have to finalize an ordinance establishing the task force.
The draft ordinance declares strong support for reparations in response to “centuries of human enslavement and post-emancipation systemic discrimination and racism.” It also acknowledges reparations were a key demand of demonstrations mobilized by the murder of George Floyd in 2021. The ordinance would also call on state leaders to end the Michigan Constitution’s ban on affirmative action and include a pro-reparations policy.
The LPD proposal also acknowledges the result of a public opinion survey that reflected a preference for task force members who are long-time residents of Detroit and have some expertise in law, history, housing or community issues. The survey, which received 412 responses, showed strong support for a task force with 6 to 15 members who have lived in the city for at least 6 years. A majority of respondents said being Black shouldn’t be a requirement.
“This was intended from day one to be a grassroots effort,” White said. “Council is just merely doing its part to set up the framework and is excited about members of the community taking a hard look at reparations and repairing the damage that’s been done over the last several centuries.”
Hood said there will be opportunities for public engagement throughout the task force’s process of crafting recommendations. Hood said the task force will rely on the public to fill in gaps of knowledge and experience, given the broad scope of its work.
“One thing that we tried to drive home in our steering committee meetings was that you need people that are directly impacted as a part of this body,” Hood said. “If we’re going to be making decisions about how to compensate people who have lost homes, we have to have somebody on the task force that’s actually lost a home. You can’t have a bunch of academics or different other types of intellectuals and historians without having people who are directly impacted by these issues.”
Hood said the steering committee had hoped to have a task force assembled by the Junteenth holiday (June 19), but that timeline seems ambitious now.
“It would be really aggressive to try and get people nominated, interviewed and voted on within a month’s time,” she said.
The ordinance would take immediate effect if supported by two-thirds of the City Council. A simple majority vote in support of the ordinance would make it take effect 30 days later.
Under the draft ordinance offered by LPD, Sheffield would have authority to appoint an executive committee consisting of a chair and three people chosen from a working group that’s been involved in the process since summer 2020.
LPD is recommending that each City Council member have two nominees, 18 total. The nominees would be interviewed by the council’s Internal Operations standing committee before being trimmed to nine. The LPD proposal outlines a process where each council member gets one initial vote, followed by subsequent rounds of voting to break ties and fill out the board, if necessary.
The task force will be developing recommendations for social initiatives in eight categories, including the right to live free of discrimination, water and sanitation, environmental health, safety, recreration, access and mobility, housing and the fulfillment of basic needs.
Those recommendations will go to the council for approval, and the task force does not have power to enact any changes at the municipal level on its own. LPD is suggesting an 18-month time frame from the date the task force is seated until it will issue its first report and recommendations.
White said funding sources haven’t been determined for programs that would eventually come out of the task force’s recommendations. Federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars could still be available, but White said it’s not guaranteed.
LPD’s draft does not include details about the length of terms for members of the task force. White said he expects members will serve only until their recommendations are finished, but a second group of members could be appointed if the process takes more than 18 months.
“I think it was envisioned that it would only be a one off deal where the members would serve until the work was done,” he said.
Detroit is home to one-in-three of all Black residents living in Michigan, according to 2020 census data. The most recent count of Detroit’s population found 78% of the city Black, 11% is white and 5% of the city identified as multi-racial.