Detroit— Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s presence looms large over the city’s mayoral election as candidates Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon vow to accomplish their agendas under the state control they both oppose.
Duggan, the former Detroit Medical Center CEO who won the Aug. 6 primary with 52 percent of the vote, is more conciliatory in tone toward Orr. Duggan says if elected he would lobby the state to relinquish control of Detroit — citing his ability to turn around the money-losing DMC into a profitable health system for eight straight years.
“I’m not going to attack the emergency manager,” he said at a recent campaign stop. “I’m going to lay out the plan to transition from the emergency manager.”
Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who finished second in the primary with 30 percent of the vote, says the new mayor needs to focus on running departments while Orr should concentrate solely on fixing the city’s finances. Orr, who has been emergency manager since late March, had Detroit file for bankruptcy protection in mid-July with an estimated $18.5 billion in debt.
“I have no intention of being a do-nothing mayor while waiting for an emergency manager to leave,” Napoleon said Monday in revealing a neighborhood revitalization plan that calls for private-public partnerships to help create public safety service centers around major retail projects throughout the city.
“All of the items set forth in my plan can be done in the meantime, providing a clear and bold direction for Detroit’s future during emergency management, or after he is gone.”
But experts say neither candidate is likely to wield much power under Orr, who has let city officials continue to work and draw salaries but has retained the final say over all decisions. Mayor Dave Bing has complained he meets only once a week with Orr and has opposed the dismantling of his inner circle of advisers and managers by state officials.
Emergency manager law expert Timothy Wittebort argues the bankruptcy case complicates the situation and says it’s going to be a while before a mayor resumes control of the city.
“I don’t see this bankruptcy ending in the next year,” said Wittebort, attorney with Howard & Howard in Royal Oak, who was appointed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm as a member of Pontiac’s financial review team.
A new mayor may not regain control even after the emergency manager departs, said Brandon Jessup, a political activist who last year successfully led efforts to throw out through a voter-approved ballot initiative, the old state emergency manager law known as Public Act 4. He cites the experience of Pontiac, where Lou Schimmel left as the state-appointed emergency manager in early September.
“A lot of people say once the emergency manager leaves, I have power again. That’s absolutely not the case,” said Jessup, who helped run Lisa Howze’s unsuccessful Detroit mayoral campaign.
“When Schimmel left, he appointed a city manager with all of the powers of the emergency manager. They are also locked into a six-year economic development plan. If they don’t follow that plan, then they can fall under emergency management.”
Detroiters to run city
The candidates take different approaches to Orr. At a recent campaign stop, Duggan told residents if elected he hopes the business community will join him in lobbying the state to return the city to its elected officials. Duggan’s campaign and a pro-Duggan super political action committee have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from companies and corporate leaders.
Duggan’s plan is not to attack Orr, but to show his restructuring expertise can transition Detroit away from state oversight.
“Nobody here has any rights as long as the emergency manager is in place,” Duggan said last month. “So, if you don’t have any rights, the next mayor doesn’t have any rights. So I’m working very hard with my team.”
The former Wayne County prosecutor expanded on that theme last week. He announced he would assemble a team to develop an alternative to the proposed 30-year state lease for Belle Isle that Orr signed with Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration. Duggan said he would engage the City Council as it weighs the potential deal, which is scheduled for a Friday vote.
“It’s time we start to show as Detroiters we can run our own operations,” said Duggan, who has yet to publicly release his plan.
Public safety a priority
Napoleon, who has called the emergency manager law unconstitutional, said the new mayor needs to focus on running departments while Orr should focus on the city’s finances.
The sheriff, who is endorsed by several unions including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 25, said he would have worked with union leaders on an agreement instead of seeking bankruptcy and opposes Orr’s idea of incorporating the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department into a regional authority.
Napoleon has touted his one-square-mile plan, which calls for flooding neighborhoods with police officers. As mayor, he said he would have the leadership abilities to get current chief James Craig to implement the plan.
“That will only happen when he has a mayor who understands law enforcement and will make public safety a priority,” said Napoleon, who was police chief under Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer.
Political consultant Eric Foster said both candidates need to use the power of persuasion with Orr.
“They are going to have to articulate their plans, but in the vein of how their plan will move the state to pull the emergency manager,” said Foster, an adviser for failed Detroit mayoral candidate Fred Durhal Jr.
Cooperation, not denunciation, is the key, pundits agree.
Detroit’s “elected officials have a chance to work with the emergency manager if they show some level of cooperation,” Wittebort said. “Pontiac ... officials did not cooperate with the emergency manager every chance they had.”