March 3, 2009 at 11:02 am

Mayor vows Cobo veto

Threat to undo council vote may end up in court

DETROIT --Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr. and the City Council are headed for a showdown over Cobo Center, after he promised a veto Monday if members don't reverse their refusal to turn over the aging facility to a regional authority.

In the first real test of the interim mayor's skill at cajoling former colleagues, Cockrel is negotiating with the City Council to resurrect the foundering deal. If not, he's promising a veto by week's end that could spark a court fight with council members who argue he doesn't have that right.

"He's still having discussions with council members and hoping they can be convinced to do what is right for the expansion of Cobo and the city," said Anthony Neely, a spokesman for Cockrel, the former council president. "This is very important for the mayor ... this is vital for the city and the auto show."

The outcome, which may be crucial to the future of the North American International Auto Show, is fast becoming an issue for Cockrel in the May 5 election. On the stump, Cockrel has bragged that he was able to get a deal done in mere months, but opponent Dave Bing last week said the mayor made the city "look like clowns" when it collapsed.

"Detroit needs a leader who has created jobs and can get the deal done," said Bing spokesman Clifford Russell. "To bring a deal like this to the table and not see it through is unfortunate for the city."

Monday was the deadline for council members to reconsider their 5-3 vote last week that scuttled a plan, which could have led to a $288 million renovation and expansion. None answered Cockrel's call to reconsider, which he sent to each member at 3 p.m. in a three-paragraph letter that promised he would "exercise my Charter authority" and overrule their decision.

In theory, even though the deadline has passed, the council could consider a separate resolution this week to revive the issue, or employ parliamentary rules to revisit the vote.

Conyers set on new terms

But Council President Monica Conyers, who spearheaded the drive to kill the deal, said she'd rather have a new deal from Lansing to make it more palatable. Declining comment beyond a written statement, she reiterated her claim that Cockrel has no authority to nix the council's decision.

"It is my preference that all of the parties involved go back to the table and craft a deal that is more acceptable to the citizens of Detroit," Conyers said. "It is not my desire to waste taxpayer dollars fighting this matter in court."

Neely said he's unsure when Cockrel might veto the measure, but the deadline is Friday. The City Council would need six votes to override Cockrel's veto, said David Whitaker, director of the city's research and analysis division.

Breakthrough short-lived

After some three years of wrangling, state lawmakers late last year agreed to a deal to improve the aging facility that is host to the North American International Auto Show. Organizers say the show pumps some $550 million into the economy, but needs more room to expand. Several auto manufacturers have skipped the show in recent years.

At the time, the deal was heralded as a breakthrough in the sometimes hostile relationship between Detroit and suburbs.

Cooperation would have been vital under the deal that would create a five-member authority to oversee Cobo. The panel, made up of one representative each appointed by the state, the city and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, would have required unanimous consent for all decisions. It would have been created 90 days after Detroit leaders blessed it.

But Conyers and other opponents on the council -- Alberta Tinsley Talabi, JoAnn Watson, Martha Reeves and Collins -- complained that Detroit was only getting $20 million for the nearly 50-year-old riverfront facility. They also objected that regionalization would end longstanding preferences at Cobo for Detroit-based contractors.

Leaders of the North American International Auto Show were in Geneva, but a spokesman said any chance the deal could be revived was promising. "The guys would be buoyed to hear anything that means this isn't dead in the water," said Sam Locricchio.

A spokeswoman for Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who was instrumental in getting the state to pass the deal, is "optimistic" the veto will be effective.

"In 43 communities across Wayne County, there are vetoes," Vanessa Denha-Garmo said. "We're hopeful this will help get the Cobo deal back on track."

Veto's mettle unclear

There's no consensus on whether Cockrel's veto would stand up in court, in large part because the legislation gave the council power to reject the deal. It would have become law had members done nothing by Friday.

Arguing that Cockrel lacks authority, Whitaker wrote a three-page memo Friday citing two cases to bolster his argument that if the state Legislatures gives power to a "legislative body," the executive couldn't overrule it.

But Robert Sedler, a Wayne State University law professor, said every resolution passed by council, barring quasi-judicial acts and appointments, is subject to veto.

"This is a clear case," said Sedler, who successfully argued last year that the City Council did not have the power to hold forfeiture hearings aimed at former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

If the council can't override the mayor's veto, they only have one option, he said. "They'd have to challenge it in court."

Staff Writer Leonard N. Fleming contributed to this report.