Politics & Prejudices
Will it work?
One thing is certain: Detroit cannot fix Detroit
Published: April 11, 2012
Nobody really knows.
By the narrowest of margins — one vote — Detroit's City Council voted last week not to commit political suicide. They opted instead to approve a "consent agreement" under which the state and city agree to work together to make the radical economic changes needed.
Switch one vote the other way, and the odds are that the city's elected officials would today be essentially powerless, and under the thumb of an emergency manager.
Everybody praised the council's newfound maturity. Most said the consent agreement is really the best possible outcome.
And if it works the way it is supposed to, it does give the city a way to solve its current economic crisis, and at least avoid toppling into bankruptcy. But I am not so sure. Whether the consent agreement will work, even in the short run, is far from certain. It depends on close cooperation between the mayor, the governor and the City Council, three players who would probably have a hard time agreeing on how to pour piss out of a boot.
Consider this, for starters: The agreement specifies that a nine-member Financial Advisory Board will oversee all aspects of city finances. The state appoints four members; the council and the mayor each appoint two. But the ninth — and potentially deciding vote — is supposed to be appointed jointly by the mayor and governor and then confirmed by the City Council.
Good luck finding someone those birds can all agree upon.
But that's not the only hurdle. Within a month, the mayor has to find people to fill two key positions: a chief financial officer, who cannot be a former elected official, and a powerful program manager.
The program manager will have the power, if necessary, to make unilateral changes to any city decisions that the Financial Advisory Board decides violate the consent agreement.
Those positions have to be filled right away, in other words, picked by the mayor in consultation with state Treasurer Andy Dillon, who is essentially a surrogate for the governor. That wouldn't be easy in the best of times. But these aren't the best of times, and there is another problem nobody is talking very much about.
Mayor Dave Bing is sick, and there are reasons to believe we don't really know how sick. A few weeks ago, we were told he was going to the hospital following some "dental discomfort."
Next thing we knew, he was having emergency surgery for a perforated intestine. Soon after he got out, he was back in for what they said was mild discomfort, which turned out to be a pulmonary embolism. This is a man in his late 60s, who is under heavy stress.
Don't expect him to be at full strength anytime soon.
Former Wayne State President Irvin Reid was a member of the financial review team that had the responsibility of investigating Detroit's distress and making a recommendation to the governor. Reid is normally a cautious man; I have known him since 1997, and don't recall him ever taking a controversial position.
To my surprise, he came out two days before the consent agreement was agreed upon to say flatly that, in his opinion, Detroit needs an emergency manager. Things are so bad, he wrote in a guest column in the Detroit Free Press, that "I am not convinced that even this will prevent bankruptcy at this stage. It may merely help us get to a managed process." To his credit, Irvin Reid pulled no punches.
"I shudder at the sight of a city on the brink of anarchy," he wrote. Reid, himself born into rural poverty in the apartheid world of South Carolina, has no use for the irrational idiots threatening to burn the city down or claiming that "Detroit will fix Detroit," a theory that he, with classic understatement, called "downright tiresome."
The problem is precisely that. Detroit cannot fix Detroit. The city is billions and billions of dollars in debt. Half the city's adults are neither working nor looking for work, according to the U.S. government.
That's the worst ratio of any large city in the nation, and may be related to the fact that nearly half the city's adults are functionally illiterate. The schools are broken; the streetlights don't come on. How can the 700,000 remaining Detroiters ever fix this mess?
How can they get out from under their crushing debt? They can't, and even if the short-term crisis can be solved, or deferred, the city needs to fix its infrastructure and attract new growth.
That's the only hope Detroit has for the future. If the consent agreement can get us even partly there, I'll be thrilled.
But the odds are that more radical surgery lies ahead.
He's baaaack: Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings all know that Sauron was the embodiment of evil in the world, and although he had been killed before, he was able to keep coming back and building his evil empire, so long as the one ring existed.
I'm sure this is purely coincidence ... but I somehow thought of the old lidless eye last week, when Matty Moroun slithered stealthily back onto the stage. Most of us, including me, were pretty much consumed with Detroit's drama, but a state employee alerted me that Matty was back with a new TV ad even more brazenly false than the others he's run. I saw the ad, and he wasn't kidding.
> Email Jack Lessenberry