Mike Duggan probably would never admit it, but Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and his bankruptcy case might be the best thing to happen to the new mayor.
The protracted workout, expected to reach another critical stage next week with the likely filing of the city’s “Plan of Adjustment,” is buying Duggan time to begin implementing the kind of reforms Detroiters can see — new property assessments, public lighting that actually works, streets that get plowed during the toughest winter in decades.
It shields him from the contentious and politically fraught battles with unions and pension funds that are generally unavoidable in a municipal bankruptcy. Orr does the heavy lifting and leaves at the end of his term, while Duggan reaps the benefit of a more manageable cost structure and forges more cooperative ties with labor.
And the largest municipal Chapter 9 in American history is likely to produce a sounder financial foundation and leaner asset base for Duggan and his team to use to power the Detroit turnaround without direct culpability for the pain that made it possible.
What’s not to like, politically speaking?
Plenty under the stock scenario that considers the emergency manager illegal and bankruptcy anathema to the principles of self-government. Except for one fact: The depth of Detroit’s financial problems, exacerbated by population flight, deindustrialization and towering financial mismanagement, all but guaranteed fiscal collapse into bankruptcy.
The only question was who would be at the controls when it happened. Would it be elected officials who denied the inevitable until they no longer could, or would it be agents of the state selected for the sole purpose of engineering a workout almost certain to include bankruptcy?
The self-evident answer arguably is a boon to Duggan, who publicly opposed appointment of an emergency manager and a Chapter 9 filing but moved to reach a power-sharing deal with Orr soon after his November election. The mayor knows opportunity when he sees it.
He also understands the dividends that can come from building a team with people you trust, empowering them to do their jobs (instead of doing it for them) and holding them accountable. He gets the power of contrast, the respect implied by simple, unpretentious gestures.
This is the mayor who, just hours after taking the oath of office, swapped his suit for jeans to ride a snowplow; who drove five hours to Louisville, Ky., to personally recruit the person who would become the city’s next chief information officer; who held meetings with city employees not to lower the managerial boom, but to ask them what they think.
The approach can deliver impressive results. From Detroit’s revived automakers to the Detroit Medical Center Duggan led back from the brink, a common marker of success in this town’s turnarounds are teams assembled by strong leaders who focus more on getting results and less on demanding credit.
Funny how that works. Critics can lament Duggan’s roots in the Wayne County political machine (true), can question his record at DMC, can criticize his reliance on loyalists (also true, judging by the ranks of his administration), but the early going suggests Detroit has a mayor already stretching the role shaped by his predecessors.
Including this: When Orr’s 18 months end in September and City Council moves, as expected, to send the emergency manager back to Washington, who would be next?
Would Gov. Rick Snyder appoint another EM? Could it be Duggan, a potential option under existing state law? And, if not another EM for Detroit, could the governor be persuaded by Duggan’s performance to reach a new consent degree with the city, giving Duggan and a majority of council a chance to succeed where those before them failed?
These are not academic questions. Few doubt council will move to oust Orr, whatever his measured handling of council and cooperative relationship (so far) with Duggan. And a ranking state official with knowledge of the situation does not dismiss the possibility of combining the powers of Duggan’s office with those of an EM.
Detroit’s not there yet. The Chapter 9 case still must pass through critical legal gates, including a trial later in the spring over the city’s restructuring plan, and Duggan needs to demonstrate that the early indicators of his bias for action have staying power in a city that needs it.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.