Mike Duggan’s got his work cut out for him.
Just days after his inauguration, Detroit’s new mayor gets a blizzard, the prospect of record-setting cold and a chance to demonstrate his administration might actually be something different — provided it can fulfill outsized expectations to plow every street across 139 square miles in the next 24 hours.
In cruel reflection of the weather, Monday’s plummeting temperatures also delivered confirmation of an order by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to freeze one of the city’s two pension funds. And then a newly elected City Council, expected to be more business-like and representative of the city, proved that it’s neither by voting 5-4 to give its presidency to a reliably union-friendly incumbent who consistently obstructed last year’s slow-walk to Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
Reminds you of that old refrain in “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ev-ver was.” Yes and no, witness the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. But at least it ain’t boring here in still the nation’s most dysfunctional major city.
The new year presents a city gutting through a fundamental transformation whose ending is uncertain, even for those driving it. The bite of bankruptcy no longer is theoretical; the quickening pace of the Chapter 9 process is forcing Orr to demonstrate the depth of the cuts and restructuring likely to comprise the “plan of adjustment” he is expected to present sometime this month to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes.
Change and creative destruction are just beginning for the city. Such prized assets as the water and sewerage department and the Detroit Institute of Arts are unlikely to escape unscathed. And, witness the pension freeze, employees and retirees will see their financial expectations readjusted downward before the city emerges from Chapter 9 — in or out of federally supervised mediation.
Managing the politics of this tangled mess will not be easy, even for an honors graduate of the Edward H. McNamara School of Advanced Politicking. All at the same time, the new mayor needs to balance his turnaround agenda with the aggressive timetable of Orr’s bankruptcy plan and the likelihood that council’s leadership could oppose almost every move taken by him and Orr.
Ever the wily pol, Duggan says he can work with council factions to move ahead with restructuring without complicating Orr’s agenda in bankruptcy. But can he do so with President Brenda Jones, a holdover from the last council's just-say-no block, running the table? Not clear, especially for a guy who knows delivering a turnaround means actually doing something.
The council president’s powers are limited by Public Act 436, the emergency manager law, and the cold, hard fact is that the bankruptcy is being run out of Orr’s office, not council chambers. A second truth is that fresh recalcitrance from council this year is likely to invite one of two responses, neither of them good:
Should the five votes that elected Jones morph into a majority predisposed to blocking reforms proposed by Orr, Duggan or both, the new nine-member council would revive suspicions that it continues to be part of Detroit’s problem, not its solution.
And, second, should Duggan struggle to manage the potential council block, serial confrontation could cloud the delicate division of labor between Duggan and Orr. Like it or not, the emergency manager possesses the power to invalidate almost any agreement, including the one to empower Duggan, despite bankruptcy and P.A. 436.
Monday’s council leadership elections are a victory for the retrograde interests seeing change and yelling, “Stop!” Less clear is whether they’ll prove the pivot toward an even more confrontational council — or one divided against itself that slips into irrelevance for as long as an emergency manager is calling the shots.
Make no mistake: The largest American city given up for dead is at an inflection point. The next 12 months are likely to decide whether Detroit, under the aegis of Orr, Gov. Rick Snyder and the state Treasury Department, actually can carve a sustainable future with the help of the federal bankruptcy code.
They’ll begin to show whether the former CEO of Detroit Medical Center really can apply the lessons of a private-sector turnaround to a municipal basket case hammered by political cronyism and financial mismanagement, recession and de-industrialization.
The next year also will answer whether Detroit’s biggest enemy is, at base, itself — a self-manufactured refusal to see that the status quo guarantees collapse and that its best hope is constructive change.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday.