CHARTER CAPTAIN: Detroit native helps city map a new legal course

Attorney Jenice Mitchell Ford may not have known what was in store for her two years ago when she decided to run for election to a special commission tasked with rewriting Detroits city charter.

She certainly underestimated the number of people who would campaign for one of the nine commissioner spots. She thought maybe 20 interested prospects would emerge. Instead, closer to 100 people pulled petitions to run and 44 candidates jostled for votes in the primary, with 18 of them winning slots on the Nov. 3, 2009, ballot. That surprised Ford. And she may even have been a little nave by not anticipating the politics that would be involved. That surprised her, too.

But none of that really mattered because what Ford did know was that she was determined to play a role in rewriting the document that is the foundation of a citys operation and can serve as a blueprint for its future success.

And Detroit was in desperate need of a reboot.

It was a particularly turbulent time in a city that honestly doesnt need any more turbulence. Kwame Kilpatrick, caught up in a sex and perjury scandal, had been ignominiously ousted from office and in a special election voters had named former Piston great and businessman Dave Bing as the new mayor. At the same time, voters had overwhelmingly endorsed establishing a commission to reform the citys charter, which during the Kilpatrick crisis had proved to be unclear and ineffective when the city council attempted to remove the disgraced mayor from office.

Written in 1918 and last amended in 1997, the charter was revealed to be vague and toothless. Revision of the charter was seen by many as one of the first necessary steps to clean away the corruption of the past and get Detroit on better footing for the future.

To the extent we were going to revise the city charter, I had to get my hands on it, recalls Ford. This is what I do.

In many respects, Ford was specially qualified for the task.

Born and raised in Detroit, she left home after graduating from Martin Luther King Jr. High School to study English literature at Georgetown University, where she served as president of the Gospel Choir and the Black Students Association. She then made her way to the Chicago area, where she earned her juris doctorate at Northwestern University School of Law in 1999.

The truth is, it was not her plan to return to Detroit to practice. She was intending to forge her legal career in Chicago.

Fords mother changed that plan with a simple declaration: Your being licensed in Illinois does me no good, she told her daughter.

So Ford placated her mother and sat for the Michigan bar. And when she got an offer from a firm in Chicago, she instead chose to accept a position at Foley & Lardner with the idea that it would only be a year or two before she would make her way back to the Windy City.

But to her own surprise, Ford found home and the law firm to her liking. She is now celebrating her 10th year at Foley.

Detroit is the kind of city you have to leave to appreciate when youre younger, says Ford with a bright, engaging smile.

Over those 10 years as she climbed to senior counsel at Foley, Ford was civic minded and politically active, working on Kilpatricks mayoral campaign and serving as a steering committee member for Michigan Lawyers for Obama, coordinating voter protection efforts during the historic 2008 election. She served on transition teams for elected officials and worked on presidential, gubernatorial and mayoral campaigns.

That experience working with political campaigns would come in handy when she decided to run for the charter revision commission. Though she had not expected it to be necessary, she launched a real, full-blown campaign for the position.

I had campaigned, but I had never had to do it for me, she says. Its a completely different experience.

She walked door-to-door and held free charter commission forums to educate voters. Her sister helped her create a web site and shoot television commercials.

The hard work and campaign savvy paid off. She drew the third highest votes and the new commission elected her vice chairperson. When Freman Hendrix resigned as chair of the commission less than a year into the process, Ford assumed the chairmanship.

She was determined to deliver the commissions work on schedule, aiming to submit its revision recommendations within two years.

As the leader of the body politic, I feel a real responsibility, she says.

The commission employed a four-phase approach to revising the charter. Phase I involved the commission holding more than 25 meetings to educate the public about critical issues in the charter. Phase II took place over three weekends when the commission held informal charter conventions to gather input from the community. Phase III concentrated on re-writing the charter. Over the course of 32 weeks, the commission reviewed more than 570 proposed changes. Phase IV will start this fall and will focus on promoting the revisions in anticipation of the November 8 vote on the revised charter.

Ford says the commission resolved major issues with the charter, including responding at the 11th hour to public outcry over a proposal to reduce the city council from nine members to seven and eliminate the ombudsman office. At a hastily called Saturday meeting, the commission revised the draft to keep the city council at its current size and to have seven of the members elected by district and two elected at-large.

People who felt that the ethics component of the charter had no bite should be pleased, too.

The ethics provisions have gone from Lassie to Cujo, from Nemo to Jaws, says Ford.

The commission removed personal gain from the ethics ordinance, making it strict liability, and the ethics commission can now issue a fine and initiate court proceedings.

And the commission addressed the publics other major concern by cleaning up the process for removing an elected official, outlining nine grounds for mandatory forfeiture.

I think people will support the document because we answer those two calls, says Ford. The charter provides the framework for a city. The hope is that by fixing the foundation in conjunction with electing good people is how you can make a difference.

Ford says she received tremendous family support over the two years she worked revising the charter. Her mother and aunt never missed a meeting. Her husband, Harry J. Ford III, put up with having a charter room in their home. Ford says she finds great satisfaction and a sense of achievement knowing she has indelibly left her fingerprints on Detroits destiny.

Im glad I was at the table, she says.

By Brian Cox

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