When Kevyn Orr signs the order sealing Detroit's bankruptcy, expected Wednesday, he'll also quit a job that would have proven far more divisive had he exercised fully his powers as emergency manager.

But he didn't, and that made all the difference in a town that manufactures confrontation and naked power in equal measure. The result: A massive Chapter 9 bankruptcy concluded faster and with far less public disorder than many predicted.

As Orr prepares Order No. 44 for Detroit, his last, the emergency manager more than a few love to hate leaves a legacy marked as much by restraint and mid-course corrections as the forceful exercise of power backed by Gov. Rick Snyder, state law and the federal bankruptcy code.

"Detroit is a cautionary tale, but it is not necessarily a template for every other community," he said in a recent interview. "The thing that makes Detroit so unique is demographic flight over decades," its chronic mismanagement and poor service delivery.

Chapter 9 will eliminate $7 billion from the city's $18 billion debt load and plow $1.4 billion into improving city services over the next decade. Whether it will prove sufficient to avoid a repeat of bankruptcy depends less on Orr's financial workout and more on the Duggan administration successfully restructuring city operations.

The Washington lawyer-turned-EM was not, and never will be, popular with the city's unions, and pension funds, employees and retiree groups, the elected officials who saw their power and their domain diminished during his tenure.

His critics are unlikely to hail his tenure for confronting generations of inexorable decline. Nor are they likely to credit him for conveying Belle Isle to the state; working with the suburbs to create a regional water authority; using outside consultants to lay bare a dysfunctional city bureaucracy only in the early stages of restructuring.

They don't have to. Orr could have eliminated salaries for two mayors and two iterations of City Council, but he didn't because he understood the political backlash would undermine his efforts to speed the case through court. He could have neutered Mayor Mike Duggan and refused to empower him; he chose the opposite, wisely.

He could have used the powers of Public Act 436, the revised emergency manager law, inside the context of federal bankruptcy to impose contract terms of the city's unions. He didn't do that, either, at least not to the extent he could.

He could have used U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes' ruling that vested pensions could be diminished in Chapter 9 — despite express protections in the state constitution — and done so. He could have ignored the Detroit Institute of Arts and pressed to sell pieces of the collection to raise cash.

He didn't. That's as much recognition of the kind of damage both actions would have exacted on the city, its workforce and its cultural bona fides as it is confirmation of the crucial role played by the $816 million "grand bargain" that unlocked the bankruptcy.

He also demonstrated a willingness to learn from mistakes, a trait too seldom found in too many chief executives — including a series of mayors who ruled City Hall more effectively than they corrected their own mistakes.

He ordered the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to suspend its controversial program of water shut-offs when it became clear the department could not adequately implement a program that quickly became a PR disaster for the city.

He backed away from threats to sell the water department to private investors or to force a deal on suburban communities whose residents would be asked to subsidize the city's general fund through their water bills. He also replaced his lead negotiator in regional water talks when negotiations stalled.

Twenty months after the governor named him emergency manager, essentially confirming the city's path into bankruptcy, Orr is poised to relinquish fully the power that will once again reside with the mayor, council and the city's bureaucrats — albeit a bureaucracy responsible for fewer assets than when he arrived in March of last year.

The DIA and its collection will be controlled by a non-profit charitable trust. The water department will be governed by a regional authority, its assets still owned by the city. Downtown real estate parcels weighing on the city's books will be the responsibility of creditors expected to redevelop their holdings with approval by the city.

More, the human cost of the bankruptcy is proving to be far less damaging than what Orr outlined in his Proposal to Creditors a year ago June — whose numbers "to this day no one has contested." The grand bargain, augmented with state money, is minimizing pension cuts that otherwise would have been far worse.

"I'm happy to say that we didn't have to sell anything," Orr said. "If you told me that a year and a half ago, I would have doubted it because this is a bankruptcy."

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at

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