July 27, 2014 at 10:14 am

To change culture, change faces

Westland Mayor William Wild is the only candidate in the field for Wayne County Executive who was not born and bred in a corrupt system. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Culture change is nearly impossible without changing the characters who’ve perpetuated the culture.

That’s what Wayne County voters should keep in mind as they go to the polls Aug. 5 to begin selecting a county executive.

The culture in Wayne County is rotten, stinking with corruption, cronyism and incompetence. Bob Ficano, the current county exec, didn’t create it, he just kept it going. I started covering the county 35 years ago, and it was rife then with self-dealing. Wayne County government has never existed to serve the interests of its taxpayers.

If the polls are right, Ficano will likely get the boot in this election. But Wayne County has switched leaders before without changing course. If county residents want change, they’ll have to break their habit of voting for familiar names. Familiar names come with familiar problems.

All of the major candidates seeking to replace Ficano have been around Wayne County government for most of their careers, save one: Westland Mayor William Wild.

Warren Evans, who is the presumed frontrunner in the race even though he faces a court challenge over his residency, exemplifies the field. He’s the former sheriff, and worked in the Edward McNamara administration.

He’s well versed in how county government works to enrich its own. Evans manipulated a loophole to start drawing a generous lifetime pension from the county while he was still in his 40s.

He continued to collect it while serving as Detroit’s police chief, a job from which he was fired by former Mayor Dave Bing for mugging it up for reality TV cameras and engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a staffer.

When he was in private business with his brother, Evans won lucrative contracts from his old buddies on the McNamara team.

Maybe that first-hand experience with scandal, sweetheart pension deals and cronyism will make Evans a better watchdog of the system, since he’ll know how the scams work.

Or maybe he’ll take the Ficano attitude and just assume that’s how things are supposed to be.

To varying degrees, the other major challengers have also fed off Wayne County for a good chunk of their careers. Phil Cavanagh is a former county commissioner. Kevin McNamara is a current commissioner and son of the late county executive. Ficano grew up in county government and knows nothing else.

And then there’s Wild. A big reason the The Detroit News endorsed Wild is because of his lack of attachment to anything Wayne County. Unlike the other candidates, he’s not drawing a county pension nor is he in line for one. And since he owns a small business, he knows something about serving the customer, and understands the customer is the person who pays the bill, not the one who writes the campaign check.

Wayne County voters may be sick enough of the garbage in their government to finally dump Ficano. But to get real change, they have to also dump their old habit of simply exchanging one familiar snout at the trough for another.

Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.