Volunteers Take Better Care of Detroit Than Elected Officials


Prevailing wisdom holds that elected officials work for the public good, while private individuals are motivated by their own personal goals—including selfish things like profits. But does this notion hold true in practice? Definitely not in Detroit. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that with the Motor City no longer financially capable of providing many basic services, private volunteers are filling in the gaps.

"It is time-consuming," says Mr. Edwards, who spent his professional life molding glass into windshields and tail lights for Chrysler. "But I don't have anything else to do."

Across Detroit, do-it-yourselfers such as Mr. Edwards are rolling up their sleeves and opening up their wallets to provide basic services that the financially strapped city can no longer manage on its own, from boarding up vacant homes to mowing lawns to maintaining parks. In some areas, residents also partner with city agencies or look to philanthropies for help.

But what motivates people like Edwards to help out the community? Doesn't he only care about himself? How will he profit?

Mr. Edwards and his neighbors say it has been several years since the city provided many maintenance services on their far East Side block. In the winter, he also pays out of pocket for snow removal for most of his tiny block. Another neighbor has agreed to cover the rest of the block. That keeps residents from being snowed in at home, neighbors say.

"That's the reward," says Mr. Edwards. "They thank me all the time."

This is a great example of why private citizens can be more invested in their communities, and thus take better care of them, than the government. In stark contrast, here's what the highest and mightiest elected officials in Detroit have been up to in the last two years:

First, there's the sordid saga of Kwame Kilpatrick, previous mayor of Detroit, and his 19 federal indictment charges—everything from tax evasion to mail and wire fraud, with possible bribery charges moving down the pipeline. He's already been to prison for obstruction of justice and will likely return sometime soon.

Then there's Otis Mathis, who was head of the Detroit Public Schools Board until recently. He resigned last month in the face of a felony charge for fondling himself during a meeting in a school district office. Mathis was under fire even before that, though, since many people were uncomfortable with the fact that the person running the public school system could barely read and write.

And of course, no one could forget Monica Conyers, who briefly reigned as Detroit City Council President in 2008-2009. She's been sentenced to three years in jail for accepting bribes from, of all things, a toxic sludge company. When she's not acting out the plot of a Captain Planet episode from 1990, she spends her spare time berating fellow council members and even calling them names. Here's an unforgettable video of Conyers at a city council meeting in 2008.

You can check out an eighth grader calling out Conyers for her conduct here.

So who's pursuing the public good in Detroit: the elected officials or individual citizens? Seems like a pretty clear answer.