Shift to elected officials a smart move in Detroit

The Detroit News

Detroit City Council’s decision to keep Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr on through the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, while returning much of the governance of the city to elected officials, is a landmark day in the city’s history, and a positive indicator of its future direction.

In effect, the mayor and council will now be running city government and managing day-to-day operations for the first time in 18 months. The fire and police departments will be under Mayor Duggan’s control, as will city finances.

It will be no small challenge for the mayor and council to resume its duty of governing. Both have had only limited powers since taking office for new terms in January. If the reforms enacted during emergency management, and the better cash position bankruptcy has produced, are to pay off, these elected leaders must act always in the best interest of the city.

The start is promising. The council was wise to keep Orr and his colleagues on through the end of the bankruptcy. The unanimity of the vote indicates both a confidence in Orr’s ability, and the council’s willingness to make tough and unpopular decisions.

They must follow up by allowing Orr to do his job with minimal meddling.

“He’s been through the process and been integral with all parties,” says Douglas Bernstein, an attorney who represents foundations in the bankruptcy. “You want to take advantage of that, not push it to the side.”

It’s encouraging to see councilmembers value the unique talents Orr has brought to Detroit, particularly in seeing bankruptcy through in such a quick manner. He’s set a high standard for other cities that might also fall into Chapter 11.

It’s also a refreshing change from Detroit’s recent history to see the cooperative relationship between the council and Duggan -- that’s critical to a smooth transition to elected leadership, and to continuing the reforms. Duggan has promised the process will be “without drama,” and that, too, will be a welcome change from the past.

Orr declared the elected leaders ready to run the city. That’s a solid vote of confidence.

But there’s still the bankruptcy to finish, and Orr will need support from City Hall to get that done. It’s critical the mayor and council truly allow Orr to finish what he started.

Though the trial has been relatively promising for Detroit, it’s far from settled. Changes were made to the plan of adjustment as recently as last week, and major creditor Syncora only recently reached a settlement. There’s good reason to believe more changes will be made to the deal to get an agreement with the last hold-out, the Financial Guaranty Insurance Company.

Orr’s guidance through those final negotiations will best help Detroit resume normal life. He needs the control to see the trial through to completion, and the freedom and leverage to be effective in negotiations.

The decision by council this week was a major step toward what governance will look like in Detroit’s future.

It certainly needs to be different than its past.

The mayor and council working together is a promising start, although the legislative body should never be a rubber stamp for the executive. Both parties need to find the balance between cooperation and the essential checks and balances role.

This will also be a chance to see how well the new council by districts governing structure works. Council, more than ever, must be the voice of city residents.

While there’s still business to settle, theis is a new beginning for Detroit, and a fresh chance for its leaders to prove themselves up to the task of helping the city to a more prosperous future.