Emergency manager are two poisonous words in Detroit politics right now, yet they are the two most powerful words in the city’s cataclysmic financial conversation.
With last week’s financial report showing the widening financial crisis of the city, and the escalating crime rate reducing Detroit to a killing field, it’s hard to imagine how the city can extricate itself once and for all from the malaise of economic hardship and public safety nightmare it is already in without the requisite soul searching and bold action needed to get Detroit back on track. Because Detroit cannot continue borrowing to pay its own bills, the city faces a series of choices for financial recovery including an emergency manager, mediation, consent agreement and bankruptcy.
But the most obvious reality that some are now resigned to is the real possibility of an emergency manager running the city — for at least a year — to get the city’s books in order before the return to representative democracy.
For critics of the revised emergency manager law, this is the worst that could happen to Detroit’s democratic system of governance, where the long tradition of home rule and the right to self-determination has guided electoral politics.
Mindful of this political minefield, Gov. Rick Snyder, and his Lansing team that includes State Treasurer Andy Dillon, have been walking a fine line to ensure that none of their actions in Detroit’s financial recovery is interpreted as a state takeover. That has led supporters of an emergency manager for Detroit to conclude that the state is babysitting Detroit’s financial crisis and at the same time playing fiddle. Detroit needs a strong surgical operation into its finances if the city cannot get its books in order, EM supporters say.
Everyone agrees that the city of Detroit has massive structural problems that have engulfed its financial wellbeing. And the current financial review that’s under way, the first step to determine an emergency manager, will further show how decades-long problems have been left unsolved, leading to this point.
And if Detroit goes the route of an emergency manager, who will that person be?
It will be the most significant position in the city in decades because of not only the enhanced powers of that individual, but also the political seismic shift that occurs instantly once the person is installed.
Also because that person will always be in the political crosshairs of all debates about the future of the city, and the public outrage about an EM as well as outbursts about the ineffectiveness of Detroit’s government.
Because of that, it appears “play it safe” has been the guiding rule for the deciders of the EM with the careful circulation of names that are familiar in Detroit politics such as former deputy mayor and mayoral candidate Freman Hendrix, former mayoral candidate and municipal executive Charlie Beckham, former Coleman Young veteran Charlie Williams as possible candidates for EM.
These names are being thrown around to guage public reaction and its unclear if, in fact, any of them would emerge as emergency manager for Detroit if the city gets to that point.
Beckham ran the mayoral campaign of Mayor Dave Bing and left the administration shortly after.
Some sources have said Lansing has been constantly talking with Beckham who’s been a leading critic of the Bing administration’s recent approach to overhaul of the city’s finances.
In numerous interviews Beckham has been intimating that Detroit’s cumbersome problems were too overwhelming for the mayor and that a mammoth political institution like Detroit requires tough choices that may not be politically expedient.
In the past Beckham has said he is only offering an honest and strong cure for the city’s finances and that there was noting personal between him and Mayor Bing whom he says he still plays golf with. It will be interesting to see how a once insider who helped orchestrate the Bing era now stands as a possible succcessor to Bing, but in the form of an emergency manager.
Hendrix, when contacted, said no one from Lansing, including the governor’s office, talked to him about being an emergency manager for Detroit.
But another name that keeps coming up is Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown.
Brown, a former deputy police chief whose entanglement with the administration of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and his court vindication, contributed greatly to the downfall of that regime, rose to political power as a victim of the follies and failures of the Kilpatrick era.
When I contacted Brown Monday afternoon to ask whether he’s talking to the state treasurer and the governor about becoming Detroit’s emergency manager his response was, “I’m not in favor of an emergency manager.”
Further asked if he will accept the job should Dillon appoint him, he only said he has “not been asked,” without saying what his response would be.
Pressed further on the matter, Brown said he is “not going to speculate on something that has not happened.”
The Brown factor becomes even more interesting given his close ties with Dillon whom he endorsed for governor when the former Democratic House speaker was seeking to become Michigan’s next governor. Brown was reportedly on Dillon’s short list for lieutenant governor if he had clinched the nomination.
In December of 2012 Brown issued this statement regarding Detroit’s dire finances and supporting Mayor Dave Bing’s push for layoffs.
“Detroit’s elected officials had frequent opportunities to make the bold cuts, including the FY2011 and FY2012 budgets. Due to the lack of political will we failed to make the necessary cuts to the General Fund Budget. During the FY2012 budget process I recommended a $140 Million cut that was eventually decreased to a $50 million reduction,” Brown said.
“Both the legislative body and administration faltered on making the politically tough choices to change the culture of overspending. Our primary issue today is that we are burning through cash every minute while the reforms are not being implemented. The progress we have made has been slow and extremely frustrating.”
Brown said there has been incremental progress at city hall.
“We approved a contract to modernize our payroll system that will save several million dollars.”
Tom Barrow, former mayoral challenger is opposing any form of an emergency manager for Detroit. Instead Barrow in an email to supporters said Detroit should head to Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.
“If Detroit’s mayor and council continue to act like lambs, conservatives will continue to feast like lions,” Barrow said.
Detroit attorney Bertram Marks who is general counsel of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors said he’s urging Gov. Snyder to name Beckham emergency manager because he has “ran five different departments” of the city and has “the insight, energy and fortitude to make tough decisions and stand by them as long as they improve the service delivery and operations of the city.”