Detroit's latest round of home demolitions stalled over dispute between Duggan, City Council

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city’s first wave of more than 1,300 residential demolitions expected to begin this spring has spurred concerns over transparency and a dispute between Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration and Detroit City Council's top-ranking member.

Council President Brenda Jones in a social media post and during Tuesday's formal session accused the city's procurement office of leveling an "assault on transparency" by failing to disclose figures on the hiring and recruitment of Detroit residents for some demolition contracts after the council put off a vote on the contracts due to concerns over hiring numbers.

The city's new Demolition Department is seeking approval from the City Council to hire seven Detroit-based companies — five of which are Black-owned — to conduct 1,380 demolitions paid for through the $250 million blight bond initiative, Proposal N. The companies were selected from 180 competitive bids for $30 million in contracts for residential properties being targeted under the plan.

The delay on the contract vote, Jones contends, prompted an initially confidential legal opinion by the city's Law Department that concluded council members don't have the authority under the city's procurement ordinance to increase or extend contracting requirements after bids are awarded.

Doing so is "risky," and could open the procurement office up to lawsuits it wouldn't be able to count on the Law Department to defend, according to the report.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to waive privilege and make the report a public record.

Until or unless the procurement ordinance is modified, Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia wrote in the legal opinion that neither the procurement office nor interested bidders "have any duty to respond to directives issued by Councilmembers."

As a result of the debate, 23 demolition contracts — each with about 60 properties and valued around $30 million — spent three weeks under review in a council's Public Health and Safety Committee. The subcommittee voted Monday to add them to next Tuesday's formal City Council agenda with a recommendation for the full council to approve them.

Garcia in an interview with The News on Tuesday denied Jones' allegations, stressing that the city's contracting department has responded to all of the requests made by the council, "as always."

He reiterated an effort to impose additional conditions after bids have been awarded is at issue and it isn't permitted.

"There is a big difference between asking for information that will allow councilmembers to vote on the proposed contract and imposing new conditions on the contracting process after the bid has been won," Garcia said. "The (Contracting and Procurement Office) cannot impose new conditions on bidders after they have successfully completed the procurement process — not even if he is asked to do so by Council. That’s not allowed under the rules."

Demands made by councilmembers included requiring the procurement office to provide a target business and employment link on its website, a plan for hiring Detroiters for all contractors that do not have a 51% or higher Detroit resident workforce and details on how the procurement office plans to inform Detroit businesses of bidding opportunities and recruit them for all services awarded to non-Detroit based businesses, the report notes. 

Jones said during the Monday committee session that what she's received from the administration is "not a detailed account" of how many Detroiters are employed or ready to be hired. 

Councilman Scott Benson, who chairs the council's Public Health and Safety Committee, said the contracts have advanced but councilmembers still are able to submit and have additional questions answered before the Feb. 23 vote. 

The administration, he said, likely wanted the package of contracts approved "as soon as it was presented" but "council is the authorizing authority and this is part of our due diligence." 

"Before you approve approximately $30 million in contracts, you want to make sure you do your due diligence," said Benson, who declined to weigh in on Garcia's opinion. 

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones uses protective gloves as she conducts council business during a regular meeting on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

Jones, in a statement, urged fellow council members to critically review the "maneuvers being taken to weaken the investigative powers of the Detroit City Council."

The legislative power of council "is substantial," Garcia wrote, but "it is limited by the charter."

"Winning bidders are likely to have strong legal claims against the city if retroactive demands and conditions are imposed," the opinion reads. "In addition to being unauthorized, such legislative tactics are risky. Vendors who are currently interested in bidding on city contracts may lose their interest if after-the-fact conditions and considerations not found in the law are imposed."

Jones, in a Feb. 8 memo to Mayor Mike Duggan and Garcia, said procurement officials recently provided council members with specific hiring figures but she contends that since the legal opinion was issued additional requests for information haven't been answered. 

Jones said she'll vote no on city contracts where Detroiters are not a priority.

Jones has long been a vocal critic over the city's contracting processes, expressing concerns over minority contractors being left out. She also declined to sign off on city-funded demolition contracts amid the federal investigation into Detroit demolition work.

Detroit's Chief Procurement Officer Boysie Jackson told the council committee on Monday that all of the contracts are tied together because they were awarded based on the capacity of each firm.

"If one of the contracts is voted down, it affects all of the contracts," he said. 

Detroit Demolition Director LaJuan Counts said in a statement to The News residents are focused on improving conditions in their neighborhoods.

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"Every day we are hearing from Detroiters who are asking us when the vacant house next to them is going to be torn down and we want to be able to get to them as quickly as possible," she said. 

The city had hoped to begin abatement in February and to have demolitions begin in the spring.

The ballot initiative was approved by a majority of Detroit voters in November and aims to take down 8,000 blighted homes over five years and renovate another 8,000 that officials believe can be salvaged.