Kevyn Orr, right, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)
Gov. Rick Snyder’s bias for speed may be headed for a collision with transparency.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes is expected to decide today whether the state should be forced to divulge the names of candidates for the job now held by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Later this week, the governor and top deputies are set to be deposed by lawyers representing labor unions in the city’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
And all of that follows ongoing internal deliberations to decide whether the administration should disclose the names of donors to the governor’s NERD fund. The non-profit civic fund, officially the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify fund, is footing the bills for the emergency manager and raising suspicion about its donors.
If the administration truly has nothing to hide, as it claims, this call on the NERD bucks should be a no-brainer. Doing otherwise, all while professing a commitment to transparency, undermines the governor’s credibility in this highly charged case and slows a process needing every week it can get.
That’s a problem. Even as Rhodes demonstrates his own bias for speed — witness his aggressive courtroom calendar and his use of a half-dozen federal judges-turned-mediators under Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen of Michigan’s eastern district — his crisp rulings guarantee nothing.
That’s why the governor and his team decided against claiming executive privilege to dodge the depositions, and why they should divulge the NERD donors sooner rather than later. If Orr, his bankruptcy counsel and restructuring teams are expected to press ahead with the Chapter 9 case and the city workout, Snyder’s office concluded claiming privilege would have the opposite effect.
They’re right. It violates Rule 104, too: Do not give thine adversaries a (rhetorical) club to beat you with. It slows the machinery, raises suspicion and fuels critics politically predisposed to assuming nefarious motives that dovetail with a narrative of “democracy hijacked” in the Detroit bankruptcy.
Time is not an ally here. Snyder and Orr are operating under the assumption that a new mayor will press to remove the emergency manager and that a newly elected City Council, seated in January, will oblige and deliver the six votes necessary to remove him by this time next year.
Legal wrangling over who is paying Orr’s bills, who can be deposed, even who lost out to Orr for the toughest job in Michigan, may be satisfying to the governor’s opponents. But knowing answers to all of those questions won’t speed the process, won’t complete the restructuring of city operations and its balance sheet, won’t deliver the certainty sought by all sides.
As much as delay, discovery and litigation fattens fees charged by the lawyers, it also helps creditors, pension funds and labor unions slow the proceedings. And that, in turn, raises hope the bankruptcy could be derailed by the ouster of Orr, or the defeat of Snyder’s certain re-election bid, or the flip in control of the Republican Legislature next fall.
None of those events, as seismic as they would be to Michigan politics, would change the fundamental facts of Detroit’s financial predicament. Pressing ahead with re-engineering city operations and restructuring its balance sheet, with targeted assists from existing federal programs, are the only way to deliver what two generations of failed leadership failed to deliver.
Yes, there are examples of elected leaders responsibly trying to ask the right questions and do the right thing, as Council Member James Tate suggested in a conversation last week. Yes, there are bureaucrats working to be part of the solution. Yes, there is evidence (see polling on the mayor’s race) that Detroiters living everyday with the result of municipal dysfunction accept the need for dramatic change.
But it’s not sufficient. Change is coming in the form of new police cruisers and EMS units already patrolling neighborhoods; in bids for privatized garbage collection that claim to be able to cut the cost to the city in half, according to an individual close to the situation; in plans to exit pieces of the lighting business, repair darkened lights, and speed a regional plan for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
Inundating Orr and his team, the governor and his top aides, with legal challenges and proverbial fishing expeditions will not yield much more than a) delay and b) more fodder for political embarrassment. None of it alters the arc of Detroit’s decline.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday.