The wild ride that is Detroit politics hit full throttle last week, careening from the bizarre to the stupefying before slamming headfirst into a wall of pure insanity.
We're talking about the marathon session City Council held two days before Thanksgiving.
The craziness started from the get-go, with people arriving more than an hour early, like so many Black Friday shoppers eager to snag a bargain. Except in this case what they queued up for was the chance to address council for a whopping 90 seconds each.
Once the doors did open, the limited seating quickly filled as hopeful speakers continued to arrive. The line grew longer and longer, with some waiting hours for the chance to let the council know how they felt before votes were taken on a number of highly controversial issues.
Just down the hall, on the 13th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, is a spacious auditorium that could have accommodated the throngs, but that had been reserved by others and wasn't available, Council President Charles Pugh repeatedly pointed out once things got under way and speaker after speaker tried to get Pugh to understand just how many people were forced to stand in the hall, waiting to speak their minds.
It wasn't until later in the day that Pugh revealed an ulterior motive for failing to provide enough room for everyone to have a seat all at once: He was afraid the rabble-rousers would rouse a little too much rabble.
Pugh's moment of candor came when someone in the audience — which, for much of the day, served the role of a Greek chorus, offering comments on the proceedings as they unfolded — loudly asked where the grapes were.
It wasn't that someone felt a need to boost their blood sugar as the council worked through lunch. No, it was a reference to a notorious 2004 incident when an angry activist hurled grapes at Detroit School Board members.
"That's why the meeting is in this room," a visibly angry Pugh declared. "How dare you disrespect this city!"
So, what's the truth there, Charlie? Did you decide to make as many as 200 people — including the elderly and disabled — cool their heels for hours in a hallway rather then sit in an auditorium (where they could actually hear both what other speakers and the council had to say) because it was absolutely impossible to move into the larger space, or was it because you were afraid things would spin completely out of control if the unhappy horde was actually allowed to be in the same room at the same time?
That might be a great set of abs the council president proudly displayed on YouTube, but being afraid to confront residents en masse seems decidedly gutless.
The media, for the most part, was quick to jump on the council — not for failing to adequately accommodate the people it is supposed to be serving, but rather for being nothing more than knee-jerk obstructionists.
Hell, even a quasi-commie like our own Jack Lessenberry essentially describes the council as such in this week's Politics & Prejudices column.
It's rare that we don't see eye to eye with the esteemed Dr. Lessenberry, but on this issue there is some disagreement.
From our vantage point, what we saw last week was the council acting reasonably when voting on a number of vital issues. A prime example is the proposal from developer John Hantz to acquire a mass of city-owned property to create a tree farm on Detroit's east side.
What could be bad about that?
Maybe nothing. But the operative word there is maybe, because, as it's now structured, the proposed deal to sell Hantz about 1,500 parcels at the bargain-basement price of $560,000 contains no real guarantees that what's being promised will actually be what gets delivered.
Beyond that, the city is currently working on an ordinance that would lay out the rules for urban agriculture in Detroit. That effort is supposed to be completed early next year. Is it really beyond rational bounds to say that it is probably a good idea to have that groundwork laid before agreeing to the largest transfer of city-owned property in Detroit's history?
Or, for that matter, do people really think it is irresponsible for council to say that it might be a good idea to hold a full-fledged public hearing on the issue — with a focus placed on obtaining comment from people living in the proposed project's footprint — before signing off on a deal that has the potential to affect the city for generations to come?
"What's the rush?" some on the council asked.
Well, they were told, a decision now would allow for the planting of saplings in the spring.
This proposal has been around for a while now. It seems as if the city can survive missing the spring planting of hardwood trees that take years to reach maturity.
As it is now, the only thing really preventing Hantz from doing anything he wants with the land a few years from now are the zoning ordinances that are already in place. Which means that the commercial properties next to residents might be put to any number of uses neighbors might not be happy with.
So, yeah, the promise of tearing down at least 50 abandoned houses, and of cleaning up debris-strewn lots and cutting the grass, and of putting abandoned parcels back on the tax rolls while planting acres and acres of lovely hardwood trees sounds wonderful.
But there are too many unknowns to hand over all that land to one entity.
Did we mention that the council didn't say "absolutely no" to the project? Instead, the measure was tabled so that the urban agriculture ordinance can be nailed down before the council decides whether to give the go-ahead to what would be the world's largest urban farm.
Conflict over conflicts
The Hantz Farm proposal, as big and significant as it is, wasn't close to being the most pressing thing on the council's agenda during its marathon session.
There are a number of contenders for that top honor, but we'd say the winner was a demand that the council approve a $300,000 contract to have the law firm of Miller Canfield provide legal services for Mayor Dave Bing.
As city contracts go, $300,000 is a relative pittance. We sat and watched Detroit's legislative body approve contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, one right after another, last week without much discussion at all.
So why was this one particular agreement of such importance?
Because Detroit's financial solvency could be hinged to it.
A few weeks back, officials in the Bing administration signed a memorandum of understanding with state Treasurer Andy Dillon detailing exactly what the city had to do before the state would release bond money borrowed by Detroit but being held in escrow.
There were, in fact, several so-called "benchmarks" the city was supposed to meet in order for the city to be able to withdraw portions of the $80 million in bond money remaining in the escrow account. One of those benchmarks involved approval of a $6.6 million contract with the accounting firm of Ernst & Young to provide "cash flow analysis."
We'll do the same for free: Way too much cash is flowing out, and there ain't nearly enough flowing in.
That's especially true now that the state didn't release $10 million from the escrow account last week, and likely won't release millions more that is supposed to be turned over to the city in mid-December.
Mayor Bing wasted little time telling everyone just how serious the situation is, issuing a press statement while council still sat around the table considering other issues after it had voted 8-1 (with Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown providing the sole "aye") to reject entering into a contract with Miller Canfield.
"Due to the failure to meet the first milestone in our agreement with the State — and with the second milestone now at risk — I have directed my Administration to begin planning to offset an anticipated $30 million cash shortfall," the mayor announced. "In order to compensate for the deficit, the City will begin to institute unpaid furloughs and other cost-saving actions, effective January 1, 2013. We will ensure that revenue-generating departments are not impacted by these cost-cutting measures."
In other words, the sinking ship known as the city of Detroit just started taking on even more water.
Why would the council put the city they are supposed to be serving in such jeopardy?
For those who would say that the council is just mindlessly saying "no, no, no" to everything put before it — we suggest framing the question differently.
Here's what we wonder:
Why would the mayor and the governor put the city in risk of insolvency over the implementation of a measly contract with one specific law firm?
Who is really being irresponsible here?
It seems that if keeping Detroit solvent — that is, having enough cash on hand to pay employees and vendors — is really everyone's primary goal, hinging that outcome on the approval of a $300,000 contract amounts to something far more than irresponsible.
It's absolutely ludicrous.
The mayor has legal counsel: It is the city of Detroit Law Department. The problem is that the mayor and his team don't like what the head of that department, Krystal Crittendon, has to say about the legality of what's going on.
Crittendon, greeted with booming applause when she showed up at last week's meeting, has already challenged the legality of the consent agreement with the state that the city is currently operating under.
That challenge was struck down by the courts. But now that voters have repealed Public Act 4, the emergency manager law that enabled creation of the consent agreement, it's not much of a stretch to think another challenge could well be forthcoming.
So Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder apparently want to cut her out of the loop when it comes to providing legal advice to the mayor.
According to Pugh, there's probably a 5-vote majority on the council to let the mayor spend taxpayer dollars on an outside firm.
Just not Miller Canfield.
Anytime a law firm is hired, it should be with the entirely reasonable expectation that its sole concern is looking out for the interests of that client, and that client alone.
What the City Council said in essence last week was that it had no confidence Miller Canfield's primary allegiance would be to the city.
That's because, as was alleged during the council meeting, there are some extraordinary conflicts of interest at play here.
Those concerns were highlighted Monday when AFSME Council 25 issued a press release saying it was calling on the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Michigan Attorney General, the Attorney Grievance Commission and the city of Detroit's Board of Ethics to investigate the firm and its actions.
Here's what critics of the deal say is the problem:
Miller Canfield played a key role in drafting Public Act 4, which allows the state to appoint emergency managers to take complete control of financially distressed municipalities and school districts.
Moreover, as pointed out in the AFSME press release, "When the state began negotiations with the city over the consent agreement, under Public Act 4, the city was told to hire the Miller Canfield law firm. That same law firm was being used by the state — in the same negotiations."
"That is like the husband in a divorce proceeding dispatching his divorce lawyer to his ex-wife," union attorney Richard Mack noted in the release. "The end result is what we see in the Consent Agreement, which is slanted heavily in favor of the state and against the city."
It gets even more twisted.
"The Miller Canfield law firm negotiated a Milestones Agreement that was signed by city and state officials. Again, the city did not have its own attorney in the negotiation. As a result, the Miller Canfield law firm wrote into the Milestone Agreement a contract which will result in millions of dollars to that firm. Now the city is being forced to award that contract to Miller Canfield ... at the risk of losing receipt of its own bond money from the state Treasurer."
Oh, yeah — about that deal with the state and Michigan Finance Authority regarding control of that bond money (which the city is paying interest on while it sits in escrow):
Miller Canfield was in on those negotiations as well.
So, is it really just the City Council erecting roadblocks to reform for no reason at all other than appeasing constituents who fear that the man is looking to come in and rob the city of its jewels, from Belle Isle to the Department of Water & Sewerage?
Or are they, dare we say, being the responsible ones in all this, refusing to blink even when the state threatens to send the city swirling into insolvency because council won't hire a law firm that is clearly serving the interests of the sate?
Call that being obstructionists if you want. We'd say, as with the Hantz Farm vote, it looks more like common sense being employed.
The Miller Canfield contract is of such vital importance that the mayor called upon the council to come in from recess and reconsider the issue on Monday.
The council showed up. The mayor didn't, sending a surrogate instead.
That didn't sit too well with the council, but it didn't really matter. Turns out that the administration, which called for the emergency meeting, didn't make certain that it was properly announced according to the state's Open Meetings Act. As a result, no action could take place.
The whole thing has been a fiasco. That much is undeniable.
For the future of the city to be riding on the approval of one stinking contract, is truly crazy. Just keep in mind that it wasn't the City Council that put Detroit in a predicament this insane.