Detroit planning director under investigation amid murals controversy

Detroit’s planning director is under investigation after cutting corners in a rush to paint murals across downtown in advance of the NFL draft, and, according to email correspondence obtained by the Free Press, nearly moved forward with painting on historic buildings, brushing off the possibility of a violation.

Detroit officials and a New York-based artist group quickly commissioned the murals as part of the city's pre-draft beautification efforts. But in the process, officials bypassed the approval process mandated by the city charter to install the first phase of Detroit Be the Change murals through Street Art for Mankind Corp., which selected artists from around the world to design murals. The group repeatedly pressed city officials for a signed contract, according to emails the Free Press obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Following multiple exchanges, Antoine Bryant, planning and development director, signed the six-figure contract, leaving him mired in controversy after neglecting the city's approval process. Because of the department's handling, Detroit City Council refused to pay for the art because it violated the city charter.

As a result, the Detroit Board of Ethics initiated an investigation into Bryant after Outlier Media and BridgeDetroit reported a review of emails. Questions surrounding the project spurred a community outcry when local artists realized none of the muralists were from Detroit.

Emails obtained by the Free Press show frenetic communication between city officials and Thibault and Audrey Decker, co-founders of Street Art for Mankind. Records show that artists began work with no contract, and were told that they should not have begun. The Free Press initially sought a slew of emails regarding the project but the city estimated it would cost $17,000 to turn over the records. In a follow-up, the Free Press narrowed its request, seeking less information at a reduced cost.

Because the project was completed without councilors' initial approval, Detroit City Council in January rejected a $215,000 contract to pay the muralists. Bryant had admitted to executing the contract and apologized to council members in a November memo, records show.

“The entire process culminated very quickly. SAM’s unexpected return and quick commencement of work do not excuse PDD’s failure to follow all required purchasing protocols," Bryant said in the November memo. "I take full responsibility for the missed processes and procedures. I apologize for all mistakes made and sincerely hope your honorable body will approve this request for payment for the services that have already been performed in good faith.”

People walk past a large mural near along West Lafayette Boulevard and Shelby Street in downtown Detroit on Monday, June 10, 2024.
People walk past a large mural near along West Lafayette Boulevard and Shelby Street in downtown Detroit on Monday, June 10, 2024.

Street Art for Mankind officials have failed to respond to requests for comment since January, and the Free Press can find no evidence that the city has paid for the work.

Bryant under investigation

The Detroit Board of Ethics is tasked with resolving complaints regarding potential violations of the city’s ethics ordinance. Executive Director Christal Phillips said the board met June 4 and voted to open an investigation into Bryant for "possible violations" of the ethics policy.

"This recommendation was based on Mr. Bryant's execution of a $215,000 contract with Street Art for Mankind Corp. without proper approval from Detroit City Council," Phillips said in an email.

Specific violations have yet to be determined, but Phillips confirmed the board will investigate at least five areas: willful neglect of duty; self-interested regulation and participation; improper use of city property; incompatible employment or rendering of services, and representation of a private person, business or organization.

"My recommendation to open an investigation would have been presented to the Board of Ethics months ago, but without a full board we could not achieve a quorum to hold a meeting," Phillips said.

The board had two vacancies earlier this year. The board's June 4 meeting was the first time it had a full board since April 2023, Phillips said.

Bryant was under attack for another matter in the January City Council meeting when the payment was rejected. Council President Pro Tem James Tate told members that Bryant bypassed Council once before by approving a sales amendment for the Brodhead Armory without their approval.

"I'm very concerned about the way that this planning director has operated. I've also talked about the lack of communication and a connection that this individual has tried to make, even with the planning and economic development standing committee chair and other members. So I am concerned about the way that he has approached this and other projects," Tate said in the January meeting.

Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett provided an opinion last year that the planning director, at that time, had the authority to approve an extended timeline for the sale, according to the mayor's office.

Inside their correspondence

Emails dating to September 2023 show Rochelle Riley, who leads the city’s Office of Arts, Culture & Entrepreneurship, coordinating with other city officials to launch the project. But enraged artists aired their frustrations after one in particular, Sydney James, noticed the project launched, Outlier Media first reported. James told the Free Press she was frustrated at the lack of community engagement and failure to include Detroit artists.

"The most important takeaway for me and for the artists in the community. It exposed what needed to be adjusted. If there is a policy in place, it hasn’t been enforced," James said, adding that artists are working on proposing a policy to city officials to ensure there's fair pay and equitable access in proposals to commission art.

By early October 2023, Thibault Decker asked Riley and Bryant to return a signed contract. Riley, a former longtime Free Press columnist, noted the planning department was paying for the project and would need to sign off on it.

"Could you let me know if we could have this document signed back to us today please?" Decker said.

After learning the group had begun work, Riley wrote back, “Your team is working without the contract between you and PDD??”

“Yes ... that was the point of my message,” Decker said. “We returned it signed and completed. But have not received it back countersigned yet.”

“Oh, Thibault,” Riley said. “Then you should not have begun working. Antoine will look at it first thing in the morning, but at this point, you will have to live with the contract he signs.”

Historic building debate

Audrey and Thibault Decker were given a final contract for review and approval on Oct. 20, 2023, from Eric Larson, CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, in an email with Riley and Bryant. Larson served as a liaison, helping the partners secure space on Ilitch-owned properties amid discussions about whether they could paint on historic buildings, which needed approval from the Historic District Commission.

“I fear, gentlemen, that this project is lost unless we find four other buildings right away that are NOT in a local historic district,” Riley said, telling partners days prior that they could not work on some of the historic buildings without approval from the commission.

Bryant suggested moving forward.

“Or we could begin on the buildings, get the work (mostly) complete, while still filing for the November meeting. Worst that would happen is that we would get 'cited,' which I can address internally,” Bryant said.

“Your call, my liege. Then let's get these projects started!!! Thank you!!” Riley responded.

Ultimately, the murals were painted in other locations.

A depiction of Detroit artist Bakpak Durden, created by Australian artist Smug, along the Fisher Freeway in downtown Detroit, April 18, 2024.
A depiction of Detroit artist Bakpak Durden, created by Australian artist Smug, along the Fisher Freeway in downtown Detroit, April 18, 2024.

At one point, Riley told Decker she was unsure why he did not understand "the local artist problem," suggesting he should have approached her if he had difficulty reaching artists. James said she was approached by Street Art for Mankind through an Instagram message to design a mural on Oct. 5, 2023, before it was too late. But she did not see the notification.

"It was not an email, it was no formal communication. It was a (direct message). I realized that after," James said.

Riley told Decker the city has "dozens of world-class artists from Detroit" to choose from.

"Next time, use your partner!" Riley wrote.

Decker later said local artists would be included a second phase.

"Folks are raving. We have tamped down Sydney James' effort to discredit," Riley wrote in an Oct. 11 email.

Like the Deckers, Bryant did not respond to requests for comment. Instead, Detroit's chief operating officer, Brad Dick, told the Free Press that the city has "complete confidence" in the planning director.

"The Law Department has indicated they will be providing Mr. Bryant counsel" in the ethics investigation, Dick said in a statement.

The contract gets signed

The emails show that Bryant signed the contract after multiple requests from Thibault Decker. In early October, Decker asked city officials to follow through on "promises made to send us the contract signed by all parties."

"This is the second time we are promised it for a Monday but fail to receive it," Decker said in an Oct. 10, 2023, email.

Riley responded, saying Bryant signed it the prior day. However, the next day, Decker claimed the group had not received it.

"Can we please have a bit of respect for SAM and now receive this contract duly signed and executed today before Antoine leaves?" Decker wrote.

On Nov. 1, 2023, Decker wrote that the "lack of communication" was beginning to concern the group.

Larson emailed the Deckers the finalized contract for their review and approval on Oct. 20, 2023, noting he was “here to help” but the required paperwork would need to go through the city. Larson also told Bryant that if the Deckers approved the contract, he would be required to submit it to City Council to be approved at the following week’s meeting. The contract was not on the agenda until Jan. 16.

Mallett previously told the Free Press that the city would not publicly discuss the issue in light of a possible lawsuit. Mallett warned council members in January that the city could face liability — including possible damages on top of the murals' cost — but no claim is known to have been filed.

Update: This story has been revised to include news of an opinion by Corporation Counsel Mallett that Bryant was within his authority on the Brodhead Armory.

Dana Afana is the Detroit city hall reporter for the Free Press. Contact: Follow her: @DanaAfana

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Emails show how city rushed to install murals; investigation underway