June 30, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Daniel Howes

Detroit gets chance to rise from ashes

It took Monica Conyers, guilty of conspiracy to commit bribery and soon a former member of the City Council, to show that Detroit does have public standards after all.

That's a welcome sign of change for existing business leaders weary from continuing political scandal and the culture of self-dealing shakedowns amid a punishing economic slide. For would-be investors seeking opportunity in the chaos, her swift comeuppance means the likelihood of greater political stability at City Hall, not less.

Why? Partly because Conyers' bombast, erratic behavior and taste for crude populist politics will be gone, effective July 6. And partly because local, state and federal law enforcement officials are sending a clear message, best articulated last week by FBI Special Agent in Charge Andrew Arena, on the probes into public corruption in Detroit:

"We're coming after you," he told a news conference. "Look over your shoulder. Look under your bed. Look in your closet. We're coming after you. This is not the beginning. This is certainly not the end."

Hallelujah. Good thing, too, whatever the dodgy track record of Justice Department investigations and prosecutions here. As much as the layering scandals land more punches on the city's body politic -- and they do, in the news media and in business circles and in smug suburban enclaves -- they also signal the beginnings of a vital catharsis in a community long abused by its own leaders and institutions.

Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff-turned-paramour, Christine Beatty, lied under oath and went to jail. A string of people connected to corruption at Cobo Center pleaded guilty. Conyers, council president pro tem and wife of the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is guilty of bribery conspiracy.

In the crumbling Detroit Public Schools, the emergency financial manager is consolidating buildings, installing accounting and audit controls, rooting out fraud, phantom employees and surplus management in central administration. Robert Bobb also is putting teachers on notice -- meet higher expectations or prepare for change you can believe in.

There's a tipping point quality to all of this, a sense that Detroit's internal rot has weakened irreversibly the city's capacity to a) support endemic public corruption and b) process chronic economic cluelessness and c) weather the seismic business shifts beyond its control.

General Motors Corp., its headquarters towering over downtown, is bankrupt, forced to cut people, plants, brands and community commitments. Post-bankruptcy Chrysler Group LLC, long the city's largest private-sector employer, is smaller and controlled by the feds in Washington and the Italians of Fiat SpA.

There's ripe opportunity for change -- real change -- in these multiple vacuums, just the kind of opening a new mayor, a reconstituted City Council and a refocused business leadership should exploit to the benefit of Detroiters north and south of Eight Mile.

First, they should support the investigations of the FBI and the Justice Department, because the best way to crush the culture of corruption killing Detroit is to prosecute it, cleanly and aggressively.

Second, Mayor Dave Bing, key council members and community leaders like Steve Tobocman, the former state representative for southwest Detroit, should press ahead with petitions to get a ward system for the council on the ballot -- even if the best argument for the change, MonCon, just pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges.

Third, Michigan's success in landing GM's next-generation small car at its Orion Township plant is an all-too-rare example of the power of bipartisan cooperation in pursuit of a common economic goal. Bing and Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. should emulate that play, reach out to their regional counterparts and move quickly to seal a deal on Cobo.

The aim is to shape a post-tipping-point Detroit into a more sensibly, more realistically managed city that prizes performance and competence over cronyism and corruption, endless layers of job-providing government at the expense of the business and industry that actually creates jobs and wealth for real people.

Bing, Cockrel & Co. actually have a chance, as tough as the past year has been, to affect Detroit's arc of history -- and they can thank MonCon and Kwame for giving them the opportunity.

dchowes@detnews.com">dchowes@detnews.com (313) 222-2106 Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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