After months of intense debate, the Dearborn Charter Commission on Wednesday rejected a proposal to switch to a wards system of nine districts.
In a 5-4 vote, the nine-member commission decided Wednesday night to keep the current at-large system in which voters elect seven members of the City Council and nine members of the Charter Commission in citywide elections.
There had been a proposal by a commissioner, Elizabeth Bailey, that would have changed Dearborn to a system of nine wards where City Council members and charter commissioners would live and represent their respective nine geographic districts known as wards. That proposal was not voted on Wednesday.
Proponents of Bailey’s plan said it would improve representation and make the city more responsive to marginalized communities, while opponents said it would be divisive. Several large cities in Michigan such as Ann Arbor and Warren have a wards system or a wards system in part.
Sharon Dulmage, one of the five commissioners who voted to keep the current at-large system, said before the vote that if people want a wards system, they can gather signatures and get it on the ballot for a vote instead of asking the Charter Commission to make the changes. Bailey responded that the charter should be making these changes themselves instead of trying to “push our work off onto the residents.”
The commission is currently working on several proposed changes to the city charter, which would then be placed on the ballot next year in February for voters to approve or reject. The proposal by Bailey would have been among the proposed changes.
Before the vote, speakers touched upon issues of race, ethnicity and class when speaking about the wards system. Less than half of Dearborn’s population lives in the west end of the city, which is more wealthy, but six of the seven members of council live in the west end; the one councilman who lives in the east end is currently on military leave. Out of the nine charter commissioners, eight of them live in the west end. Residents in the south end, an area with lower-income households and high levels of pollution, have no representation on the council and commission.
Tensions flared at times between commissioners. The chair of the commission, Hassan Abdallah, who voted to keep the current at-large system, defended himself against accusations he had anti-ward bias when running previous meetings and was not representative of Arab Americans.
“Let me be unequivocally clear,” Abdallah said after reading a message critical of him from a member of the public that he said was circulated on social media and group chats. “I could not be more proud to be Arab, to be Muslim. My family, amongst many others in this community and abroad, has been subject of a lot of discrimination within this country, within the city. … To question the authenticity of my ethnic background is disgusting.”
A commissioner who favors wards, Laura Dudgeon, then criticized Abdallah for attacking a member of the public who objected to his actions, telling him he’s “made a lot of stink about it.”
There are two members of the commission, including Abdallah, who are Arab American and four members of the council who are Arab American. Supporters of the proposed ward system have said that none of them are from the Yemeni American community and there are no Arab American women among elected city and school officials in Dearborn.
Commissioners Abdallah, Dulmage, Hussein Hachem, Cheryl Hawkins and Timothy Harrison voted on a motion to keep the at-large system, while Bailey, Dudgeon, L. Glenn O’Kray and James O’Connor, who support wards, voted against it.
Proponents of wards said their next step may be to get a proposal on the ballot separately from the charter proposal or seek legal help from the U.S. Department of Justice, which has intervened in cities like Eastpointe to increase diversity and representation.
Gary Woronchak, a Dearborn resident who’s a former state House representative and former Wayne County Commission chairman, spoke out at the meeting against wards, saying it could “exacerbate the divisions within the city, to pit neighborhoods against neighborhoods.”
Mona Mawari, a Dearborn resident who founded Dearborn Wants Wards, said the city actually already has “an unspoken ward system” that effectively favors the west end since most of the City Council has been from the west end.
“Historically, if you look at capital improvement, improvement projects, and funding allocation, it’s been always disproportionately spent more on the west side of the city, because it’s always been overrepresented,” she said. “There is stark differences between the west, east and south. The difference is like night and day.”