Detroit has a chance

Frank Beckmann

As Kevyn Orr’s 18-month term as Detroit’s emergency manager reaches its conclusion this weekend, I’m left with one overarching conclusion — it worked.

A year and a half ago, Orr’s appointment by Gov. Rick Snyder was greeted with loud howls.

We all remember the complaints that the democratic system was being destroyed, that Detroiters were losing the right to govern themselves, that voters were being overruled, and that city officials were being stripped of their powers, all of which was supposedly going to lead to a chaotic result that would cause long lasting damage in Michigan’s largest city.

Now, as Orr guides Detroit through the final stages of its bankruptcy filing, those false alarms are but a distant memory.

Orr has not been the uncaring tyrant that was depicted by the critics. Voters have seen their elected officials again granted powers to make decisions. And the city is functioning again the way it was intended to with garbage being collected on time, blighted homes being razed, and street lights restored to functionality, basic services that had been long ignored in a city that didn’t work.

All of these improvements were made, not by a dictator who refused to accept input, but by a manager who shared power with the elected officials even as he held a trump card to veto any plans that threatened to keep the city in the morass that was created by previous Detroit leaders.

The emergency manager system and bankruptcy proceeding has succeeded in a way that few could have predicted.

Sure, there was the shared pain of sacrifice by all who have a stake in Detroit’s renewal, from creditors who had to accept pennies on the dollar for all the city debt they held, to municipal employees who once benefited from unsustainable pay and benefit packages they received from incompetent city leaders who did not possess the foresight shown by Orr and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who shares in the credit for the turnaround.

But the key has been Orr, a man who left behind his wife and children in Washington to make Detroiters his adopted family.

While he will no doubt continue to play a role consulting with the city on its continuing recovery, the emergency manager has completed the bulk of his work and the results of his success will benefit Detroiters for generations to come.

His tough negotiating style — and the threat of judicial decrees — has forged a restructuring of creditor debt, including that incurred by long term obligations to retired city employees.

Even the city’s long-neglected water and sewer system is on its way to a 21st century upgrade with a previously unimaginable agreement for regional control involving suburban partners who had long clamored for change and a seat at the administrative table, harmony that eluded the region for decades.

But as much as Orr gets the credit for the work he has done to turn around a city that had resembled the Third World — and remember that the turnaround has emboldened investors with the confidence to invest in the downtown area — the emergency manager shares credit with the man who had the vision and political courage to appoint him.

That’s Snyder, who showed much more courage than his predecessors, who watched Detroit decline without taking action.

Snyder showed the political courage to anger a fair share of the voters in Michigan’s most populous city by naming Orr in the first place, and then backed up his commitment with a nearly $350 million dollar state bailout for Detroit — which didn’t sit well with outstate voters — to protect the Detroit Institute of Arts and the remaining pensions of former city workers.

The governor ignored political expediency for the virtue and reality that Detroit could not survive without such intervention.

Councilman Andre Spivey was one of the skeptics, but now, upon reflection, has changed his view.

“You never want someone to come in and tell you what to do — as some would call it, a dictatorship — but we needed it,” Spivey said on my WJR Radio show this week.

As history stood before Orr’s arrival 18 months ago, Detroit’s benchmark moment was the 1967 riot.

But now, as he prepares to leave the scene, a new historical point of reference has been established.

Mayor Mike Duggan and the current council will have a chance to continue that recovery, an opportunity that would not have arisen without the competence of Orr and the foresight of Snyder.

Frank Beckmann is host of “The Frank Beckmann Show” on WJR-AM (760) from 9 a.m. to noon Monday-Friday.