Mike Duggan’s run for mayor is doubling as a campaign for a more specific job: Detroit’s chief operating officer.
In their first mayoral debate, Duggan said he would “engage” Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, would seek to establish his role as COO, and would field a team to run the city’s operations. Benny Napoleon says he wants Orr out, that he has “no plans to work with Kevyn Orr. We must do everything possible to get rid of Kevyn Orr. He is here illegally; he is here illegitimately.”
But Orr is nevertheless here, backed by a duly-elected governor and an emergency manager law that has survived repeated legal challenges. And as early as this week, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes could rule that the city is eligible to proceed with the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.
That’s a reality neither Duggan nor Napoleon can change unilaterally. Nowhere do the former Detroit Medical Center CEO and his rival, the Wayne County sheriff, differ more than in their position toward Orr and the restructuring he is trying to execute amid controversial bankruptcy proceedings.
“I believe the next mayor ought to be the chief operating officer,” Duggan said during the debate aired Sunday. “I’m going to engage the EM. I’m not going to attack him. And if I’m allowed to come in and put the team together and start to turn the city around, I’ll work with him. If not, then we’ll be in an adversarial situation.”
The next mayor will face many critical choices. Among them: should he try to carve a critical niche in City Hall until the City Council likely sends Orr back to his Washington law practice a year or so from now? Or should he spend at least the first nine months of his term jawboning what in all likelihood is an accomplished political fact?
The latter course is a likely path to political irrelevance. But a push by the new mayor, whoever it is, to install a new team to manage city operations as Orr and his team restructure the city’s debt-laden balance sheet could be the makings of a mutually beneficial alliance. Here’s how:
Orr and his high-priced teams of lawyers and consultants are trained to engineer financial workouts, not run municipal departments. They’re short-timers whose two-fold assignment is to get a bankruptcy plan confirmed by the court and, second, to match the city’s financial and operational obligations to its current revenue and population.
Savvy municipal operators? Not so much because it’s not what they do. Team Orr gets high marks for its financial acumen. But the longer time goes without delivering improved services residents can actually see, the more the credibility of the governor’s entire emergency management process erodes.
Essentially partnering with the next mayor — and, by extension, the next council — would enlist the city’s newly elected leadership in the outcome of the restructuring. Duggan, for one, says the workout can be achieved without cutting pension benefits or selling the Water and Sewerage Department to a regional authority.
Let him show how, and how quickly. Let Napoleon demonstrate how he can persuade private investors to pump billions into seven “anchor centers” and six “Public Safety Service Centers,” among other things, even as the city struggles to pay its bills in bankruptcy. Or how antagonizing Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder over the legality of the EM law would get streetlights on, garbage picked up regularly or more cops on the street.
Orr’s plate runneth over. He’s quarterbacking the largest municipal bankruptcy ever. He’s mulling whether and which city assets to sell to raise cash to repay creditors, including pieces of the city-owned collection inside the Detroit Institute of Arts. He’s proposing cuts in pension benefits for city retirees, a portion of whom have no Social Security to cushion the blow.
And so much more. Improving day-to-day operations of the city — an explicit promise of the EM’s appointment and his restructuring plan proposed back in June — could be a primary role for the new mayor, assuming a) he is content serving as COO for at least a year and b) Orr actually gives the new guy authority and room to operate.
There are the makings of a symbiotic, win-win relationship here: Orr, the governor and their allies would benefit from whatever improvements a legitimately elected COO could deliver to Detroiters, improvements the newly elected pols will have to live with long after Orr & Co. are back in the private sector making big bucks.
The mayor would benefit from a painful, if necessary, financial restructuring he neither engineered nor endorsed. He also could reap the dividends of a constructive relationship with an administration likely to be around awhile in Lansing.
That may be why Duggan, for one, is using the debates to push the idea.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday.