As Detroit city official Carol O’Cleireacain was wrapping up a lecture Monday on the fiscal future of the city, a University of Michigan student and Detroit resident said during a Q and A he felt the official’s description of Detroit was offensive and inacurate — pointing to her comment calling Detroit a “rich public policy laboratory” for students in Ann Arbor.
O’Cleireacain, Detroit’s deputy mayor for economic policy, planning and strategy, was speaking at the Ford School of Public Policy on Detroit’s financial crisis. Her presentation centered on Detroit’s past, present and future financial situation.
“A laboratory is not necessarily an experiment,” O’Cleireacain said in response to Public Policy junior Stephen Wallace.
The lecture was sponsored by the Ford School of Public Policy’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy, and approximately 100 University students, faculty and alumni were in attendance.
Wallace, who grew up in East English Village on Detroit’s east side, said in an interview after the event that he believed O’Cleireacain painted lower-income citizens of Detroit as projects for research, something he found particularly demoralizing as a resident.
“I found that referring to Detroit as a laboratory for public policy experiments (was) very offensive because you’re dealing with people’s real lives,” Wallace said. “I am very fortunate to come out of my neighborhood and go to one of the best schools in the world, but I had a lot of opportunities that some people don’t have and to refer to their lives and their futures as experiments … is a very slippery slope. It causes you to view the city and the people in it as something less than human.”
When asked about Wallace’s question after the lecture, O’Cleireacain declined to comment.
O’Cleireacain devoted most of the lecture to the city of Detroit’s financial strategy. Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July 2013, making Detroit the largest municipality to file for said chapter of bankruptcy in U.S. history, slashing approximately $18 billion in debt. In October 2014, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan confirmed New Yorker O’Cleireacain as the deputy mayor for economic policy, planning and strategy.
At the lecture, O’Cleireacain assured audience members that Detroit’s economic operations will not be returning to the state of the city was in before the bankruptcy.
“There are strict recording, budgeting and oversight standards that have been written both into state law and into the bankruptcies … that are governing Detroit’s fiscal reality and behavior for the next 40 years and very strictly until 2024,” she said. “Virtually nothing about Detroit’s financing and budgeting will be the same as before and, folks, that’s a really good outcome.”
Along with these guidelines, O’Cleireacain discussed what Detroit offers to University students. Describing the city as a “hollowed field,” she said students at the University will have the chance to implement new public policy technology in a city without common infrastructural systems, such as a stable school system.
“LED street lighting, mobile health units, smartphone-based on-street parking meters, and Internet bus arrival times have been implemented in the last two years and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” O’Cleireacain said.
During the Q and A, Wallace said the litany of infrastructural reforms O’Cleireacain listed in her speech are not reflected in his experiences in Detroit.
“My street had one light on it,” Wallace said. “There’s abandoned buildings everywhere, there’s tall grass everywhere. Streets are filled with litter. This cleanup isn’t happening … You don’t see the improvement in the neighborhoods and with the people.”
O’Cleireacain emphasized that economic recovery will not occur without the inclusion of all Detroit citizens in the process.
“While Downtown and Midtown are well on their way to recovery, the recovery has to include the Detroiters who live in neighborhoods largely left untouched by Downtown and Midtown,” O’Cleireacain said.
Wallace was approached by several students and faculty members after the event, thanking him for his question and comments and asking to speak with him in the future about public policy projects in Detroit. Among those who sought out Wallace was Tom Ivacko, administrator and program director of CLOSUP, who said he believed some of O’Cleireacain’s remarks may have been misinterpreted. However, he said Wallace was correct in questioning how policies impact people.
“(In regard to her public policy laboratory comment), I interpreted Dr. O’Cleireacain’s statement in light of the famous phrase by Louis Brandeis: The states are ‘laboratories of democracy,’ ” Ivacko said. “It’s easy to think about policies on a theoretical level but they impact people’s lives directly and so there’s numerous roles for the University to be engaged at the policy level in neighborhoods dealing with people and dealing with organizations. Being engaged is the key.”