Council President Charles Pugh said Tuesday that he's trying to to set up a meeting with incoming emergency financial manager Kevyn Orr. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Detroit — City Council members, meeting Tuesday for the first time since an emergency manager was named in Detroit, were as divided as ever about their role in the new regime.
Some council members were optimistic about maintaining a salary and prominent role in city operations, while others questioned where they will fit in when emergency manager Kevyn Orr arrives at City Hall on Monday. Three members, including vocal EM opponents JoAnn Watson and Kwame Kenyatta, were no-shows Tuesday.
President Charles Pugh said he's working to set up a meeting with Orr, the Washington, D.C., bankruptcy attorney appointed last week by Gov. Rick Snyder. Pugh said Orr should stay focused on restructuring the city's $14 billion debt so the council can focus on delivering city services.
"There's so much for us to do and so much he can't do," Pugh said, noting Orr will be busy with pensions, health care and labor negotiations. "He's not going to have time for daily operations. He should leave that to us."
Pugh said that once it's decided how much money the city has to spend, the council could decide where it should be spent to represent the priorities of the community.
"Setting a budget is not just about the bottom line," he said. "It's about the priorities of the community."
Tuesday's meeting was likely the council's last formal session before Orr takes office. The state's new emergency manager law goes into effect March 28 and will strip the fiduciary responsibilities, pay and benefits of Mayor Dave Bing and the City Council. Orr can choose to partially or fully restore the compensation.
In an interview Tuesday with Michigan Radio, Orr said he has offered "an olive branch" to the City Council.
"What will the relationship be? One I hope that it is a fulfilling one, and engaging," Orr said. "I have offered an olive branch to the City Council to come in and work with me. We still have a democracy; they still have their jobs."
President Pro Tem Gary Brown echoed Pugh's position, saying he also believes the council can remain relevant.
"I suspect that (Orr) will remove any voting items that have to do with financial issues, settlements, contracts, but the council will still have authority over policy within the city of Detroit," Brown said. "At least that's the way I think it will shape out."
Other council members said they were ready to get started, but don't know what to expect.
"I'm ready to work, meet this individual and figure out this next course of action in our relationship. Let's lay the groundwork now, before you even come in," Councilman James Tate said of Orr. " 'Detroit can't wait' is what's been said and now I feel like we're in a holding pattern, waiting to hear from the state on what this now means."
Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins said the council must figure out its role and fight to maintain it.
"I prefer to do real work rather than go through the motions," she said. "We are the first line of defense for residents. That's what legislative bodies are." Jenkins said despite what some people believe, council members do a lot more than approve contracts.
"The list of the things we do in addition to constituent work is quite long," said Jenkins, noting land use issues, approval of zoning and tax abatements and crafting ordinances.
Councilwoman Brenda Jones maintained Tuesday that she believes the emergency manager law is unconstitutional.
"The citizens have still spoken out," she told her colleagues. "They wish that this body will not just throw in the towel. I will not throw in the towel."
Council members Kenyatta, Watson and the Rev. Andre Spivey were absent from Tuesday's meeting.
Jones said she intends to continue to represent the citizens.
"I know that it has been said we are waiting to see what our role will be," she said. "I don't know what kind of role we can have. I feel that we're just sitting here as a symbolic symbol right now."
During the meeting, residents pressed the council to pursue legal action against the state takeover. "The dictator is coming: Kevyn Orr imposed by Snyder. Detroit doesn't need Kevyn Orr," said resident Valerie Glenn of Free Detroit No Consent, who then encouraged citizens to call council offices and "tell them to sue against the un-American takeover."
"Continue to stand strong. Do not consent. Continue to resist," Glenn said.
The City Council argued last week at an appeals hearing in Lansing that the appointment of an emergency manager was "premature" and advocated instead for an expanded consent agreement. The council also considered a potential court challenge but ultimately decided against it.
Kathy Montgomery of Detroit on Tuesday asked the council to reverse its decision.
"Please obtain a court injunction to stop the installment of the emergency manager," said Montgomery, 64. "We elected you to represent us."