The latest fight over funding for regional mass transit is not the only battle that has shaped the longstanding and sometimes difficult relationship between Detroit and Oakland County.
If anything, the current debacle over transit is a powerful reminder how the persistent and continued divide along racial and economic lines has kept this region segregated and unequal despite some visible progress.
Last week we were reminded of that when Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson decided he would allow well-to-do cities in his county to opt out of any new taxes for a regional transportation system.
Patterson, one of the remaining conservative icons of the last 30 years in the region, used his 2018 State of the County Address, parts of which read like a riot act or red meat to his political base, to register his vehement opposition to a proposed November ballot initiative to fund transit.
The decision angered Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who, like other previous mayors, must deal with Patterson on a wide range of issues no matter how polarizing the issues can be.
The mayor and his allies are of the view that allowing rich suburbs to opt out is a very bad idea. Without an all inclusive mass public transit system, the service jobs that are available in those affluent communities — along the Interstate 75 corridor — cannot be accessed by economically distressed citizens of Detroit.
That explains why Duggan, whose administration has embarked on a turnaround of a city with deep socioeconomic challenges that are sparse in Oakland County, fired back with a statement that sounded like he was betrayed by Patterson’s opposition to funding a transit system.
But the current transportation fiasco raises some questions about the relationship between the two political leaders.
“Mayor Duggan is on Patterson’s Christmas card list,” is how Patterson’s spokesman Bill Mullan responded in an email about the relationship between the two men.
Mullan says the current disagreement over transit should be seen as part of the normal course of doing business.
“Though Detroit, Wayne County and Washtenaw County have rejected County Executive Patterson’s proposal for Oakland County’s opt-in communities to pay $1.2 billion over 20 years toward regional transit, we remain cooperative neighbors,” Mullan said.
“Just because there is disagreement on a regional issue doesn’t make it otherwise. From time to time, there will be some issue where we don’t see eye to eye.”
According to Mullan, “Oakland County objects to the negative characterization of the relationship between the county and Detroit. Frankly, relations have never been better, despite the disagreement over resolving the transit issue.”
He added, “Think about all the other regional issues that have been resolved — the formation of a regional authority for Cobo, the adoption of Oakland taxpayer support for the (Detroit Institute of Arts) and the Detroit Zoo, and the creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority. They clearly demonstrate the ability of the region to work together.”
John Roach, the mayor’s spokesman, agreed that differences should be expected.
“The mayor and county Executive Patterson have had a professional and respectful relationship for the better part of 30 years. Over that time there have been a number of instances, such as the formation of the Great Lakes Water Authority, where they have been in agreement and worked successfully through complex regional issues,” Roach said.
“As in any longstanding relationship, there will be times when you simply disagree on something and transit is one of those issues for the mayor and Patterson.”
However, the ongoing split over transportation is reminiscent of some of the old fights that former Mayor Coleman Young had with Patterson, according to Charlie Williams, a top lieutenant to Young who ran the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department from 1983-93.
“The city did not have a good relationship with Patterson back then,” Williams said. “Being around Coleman Young and listening to the exchange, it was never positive. He was always up in arms with Patterson when something negative was said about the city.”
But Williams said he enjoyed a working relationship with George W. Kuhn, the former Oakland County drain commissioner and former state senator who died in 2012.
The two worked together on water rates which has always remained a contentious issue.
Asked what in particular is misunderstood about Patterson’s stance on issues involving Detroit, Mullan, said, “The fact that over the years that Patterson has had the courage to stand up to Detroit on occasion and say ‘No’ which has been misinterpreted as lifelong hostility toward anything Detroit.”
Still Mullan maintains “Oakland respects the mayor and his advocacy for his city.”
Detroit and Oakland County belong in one region despite the distinct characteristics that shape the city and the suburbs. That is why we must call out the false pretexts that fuel the divide between the two. It is time for us to move past our comfort zones and recognize that race and economics continue to dictate how we live and that a regional transit system is also about regional equity.
Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.