February 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

After rocky start, Orr, Duggan learn to trust each other as they run Detroit

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, front, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr have found ways to work with each other. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

They call it a work in progress, but Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Mayor Mike Duggan appear to be forging a solid working relationship as they try to improve services and move Detroit out of bankruptcy.

Duggan admits the first meetings were bumpy, but he and the state-appointed emergency manager figured out how to work together.

Both Orr and Duggan say there’s better communication and coordination because they meet regularly, including a scheduled session each Thursday morning. The Orr and Duggan staffs collaborate more and sit in on each other’s weekly staff sessions. Orr’s staffers say Duggan pops by their offices just to ask what’s going on.

Orr said it’s a welcome change from how he worked with the preceding administration of Dave Bing, who complained late last year that the relationship was “more like a state dictatorship.” The emergency manager said the Bing administration sometimes claimed it couldn’t do certain things or played politics when goals weren’t met.

“We’ve actually had some frank conversations, but they usually end up with a consensus being built in some way,” Orr said about his work with Duggan. “It’s a level of confidence and almost a sense of earnestness that when an agreement is reached, that’s what’s gonna be done. You don’t have to come back and revisit it.”

Orr, who became emergency manager in March 2013, holds the upper hand in the relationship since state law gives him the authority to limit the powers of city officials. In an agreement Orr forged with Duggan before the mayor took office Jan. 1, the emergency manager gave the mayor the power to run almost all city day-to-day operations — including the Fire Department, blight removal and public lighting — but not the Police Department.

Orr continues to have veto power over Duggan decisions that include department restructurings and outsourcing of city services, as well as hiring and firing full-time employees earning more than $50,000 a year. The emergency manager also retained authority over financial matters related to the city’s bankruptcy restructuring, while Duggan agreed not to undercut Orr’s plan to reduce debt in bankruptcy court.

Both Duggan and Orr are learning to get along in a unique situation, said Bill Ballenger, associate editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter in Lansing.

“You never had a mayor take office in Detroit and not have the full powers of office at his disposal,” Ballenger said. “... They realize there’s certainly nothing to be gained by shouting at each other or some sort of public display of irritation or anger with each other. They are trying to make it work.”

Off to a slow start

Duggan agrees he and Orr have found ways to work with each other instead of against each other, but the initial encounters weren’t cordial.

“The first meetings were not that cheerful,” Duggan said. “We may be the two most direct, blunt individuals, and we figured out after a while we didn’t have any trouble understanding each other.

The mayor said he was frustrated with the lack of progress with city services while “I saw Kevyn Orr working 16-hour days working on the bankruptcy stuff.” Now the emergency manager and he work in their separate areas to help the city’s turnaround, Duggan said.

“Now you have an odd situation where you have him spending 16 hours a day on the bankruptcy and I’m putting in 16 hours a day on city services and we’re still not making as much progress we should be,” he said. “But we’re doing a lot more than was done before.”

Orr added the relationship is about progressing fast.

“It’s about getting a lot done in a very short time frame and frankly for (the time) I have left, I anticipate it’ll just get better,” he said.

The Orr-Duggan relationship caught the attention of President Barack Obama. During the president’s visit to Lansing more than a week ago, Duggan said he briefed the president over lunch on the status of Detroit’s bankruptcy.

“(The president) was interested in the relationship between Kevyn Orr and me — and I gave him a candid assessment,” Duggan said. “That’s something that will stay between him and me.”

But the mayor insists the relationship is fine. “We don’t fight,” Duggan told reporters.

Decision to work together

The Orr-Duggan partnership is a departure from Bing, who publicly voiced his frustration with how his administration was sidelined.

In a mid-October deposition outlined in bankruptcy court, Bing testified Orr had a good grasp of Detroit’s long-term financial needs but failed to carry out key reforms to city operations. He said his department heads were “frustrated as hell” by the consultants who had taken over City Hall and said he agreed with an assessment that Orr was “not doing a competent job” restructuring city operations.

After talking with Bing about the distrust, Duggan said he decided he needed to work with Orr. He had campaigned against the emergency manager appointment.

The shift in the role of Gary Brown, the group executive for city operations, reflects how the situation has improved between the offices of the mayor and emergency manager, said political analyst Steve Hood. Brown, the former deputy police chief and City Council member who is paid $225,000 a year, was brought in by Orr, but now reports to Duggan.

“That in itself shows an attempt on both sides to work together. It would seem to be no reason for Gary Brown to be there with Duggan in office,” Hood said.

Still, Hood would like to see Duggan more involved in the plan of adjustment that is expected to be filed this week, considering he likely will be in charge after Orr is gone.

“So far, for (about) 30 days, it looks like it’s cool,” Hood said. “I would really like to see Duggan as a part of Orr’s plan of adjustment. He has to live with it and run a city afterward.”

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