Another Day Approaches
After more than 15 years of public service, including a stint as Detroit’s mayor, Ken Cockrel Jr. opines on his journey while the sun sets on his remaining time in office.
Published: May 8, 2013
MT: When 10,000 people leave the city annually, it’s never going to be a stable financial situation.
Cockrel: That’s the one I was just about to mention. I mean, the emergency manager can’t wave a magic wand and stem population decline. He can’t wave a magic wand and get people to start moving back into [Detroit] by the tens of thousands. He can’t wave a magic wand to get businesses to all of a sudden start locating in the city of Detroit and hanging out shingles.
MT: Is there concern that the EM will do what needs to be done [balancing the budget], and after he leaves the city returns to running deficits again?
Cockrel: Yeah, I think it is a concern. I think it’s something that people, for the most part, are not talking about.
If you look at the track record of emergency financial managers or emergency managers in Michigan, it’s been kind of a mixed bag. And even if you look at some of the cities that went through it earlier, they’re kind now right back on the precipice. Hamtramck’s an example.
There’s no one, unqualified success story that everybody can point to — and for that reason I think people need to look at this with some balance as opposed to drinking the Kool-Aid … which is not to say there won’t be any positives that can be accomplished.
MT: There are people who believe installing the EM was unconstitutional and should be fought at every step.
Cockrel: You’ve got some folks on council who take that approach — they may not be the majority, but you’ve definitely got some folks on council … that share that sentiment.
There are also a number of people in the community that feel that way. And we get a certain percentage of those folks that show up every Tuesday morning.
I’m sure that when I leave [Metro Times’ offices] and go to the Coleman A. Young building that some of those same folks are going to be there, and they’re going to be expressing those same sentiments because they come every Tuesday and do it.
That approach — to me — I don’t think is productive at this point. It’s sort of like trying to defuse a bomb after it’s already blown up. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
That’s why I said earlier, the EM is not the best situation, but you’ve gotta try to play the cards you’re dealt, and that’s how I look at it.
MT: What is your advice for Kevyn Orr?
Cockrel: Don’t just listen to the consultants, do your own homework. All these consultants have been brought in to do stuff — and I’m going to be very candid — I think some of them see a payday and a chance to enhance the reputation, and credibility, of their respective companies. There aren’t many private sector consultants that have done municipal turnarounds — especially on this scale.
The reality is many of them stand to make a lot of money off of this, and — assuming things go well — also have something to put on their websites and talk about when they’re interviewed by various businesses or publications. But that’s not necessarily focusing on what’s in the best interest of the city of Detroit.
So the best advice I’d give [Orr] is just don’t listen to the consultants, do your own homework.
MT: Did the state give the city a fair chance to implement the consent agreement?
Cockrel: No, no; definitely not. If you look at the consent agreement and if you look at the benchmarks and components — many were either completed or at various stages of being completed.
I think, at the end of the day, the governor clearly just got impatient. I think the state took a look at some numbers that it had, with respect to financial projections and cash flow, and made a conclusion — either rightly or wrongly — that the Bing administration just didn’t have a good handle on this; and council, regardless of how much it tried to assist, weren’t going to be able to get it done.
MT: Do you think the state was sincere when it initially forced the consent agreement on the city?
Cockrel: I do think they were sincere. I don’t think the governor or the treasurer wanted to pull the trigger on an emergency manager. I don’t think that’s something that they wanted to see happen.
I think the preference was some sort of alternative approach, which was chosen in the form of the consent agreement — the Fiscal Stability Agreement.
I think the state was sincere in wanting to work with the city a year ago — and it was the mayor that initially was hugely resistant to the idea of doing a consent agreement.
I think that the state was there … a majority of the city council was there, but the mayor didn’t really want to do it.
So it took some discussion and some negotiating … you had a working group consisting of the council president, Charles Pugh, James Tate and myself who were a block of people from City Council who wound up negotiating with the state and the mayor to do a consent agreement.
MT: Given how things turned out, would you have taken the same approach again?
Cockrel: Yeah, I would’ve. Because what would have been the alternative?
MT: How will we know if Kevyn Orr and Jones Day have done a good job in terms of gaining concessions from bondholders?
Cockrel: That’s an interesting question. I think, more or less, it points to a larger question of transparency for the EM. Thing about the mayor is that he’s an elected official so he has to be transparent to a certain extent. The council arguably has to be more transparent by the nature of how it operates, because we’re a legislative body, so we can’t do secret meetings.
With Kevyn Orr, it’s a whole different ball game. Do we know how much this guy is spending on staff? Do we know what his travel expenses may be?
When those [financial negotiations with bankers] are cut — to the extent he is successful — how is that going to be reported?
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