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Classless clowns

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The silliness reached epic proportions last week as Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the City Council sat down to deal with the council’s 4-4 deadlock over the mayor’s request to refinance $1.2 billion in debt owed to two city pension systems.

Things had hit a crisis point. If a majority of the council did not approve the deal, which was needed to keep from adding an $80 million shortfall to a budget already swimming in red ink, pink slips would start going out Monday. As many as 2,000 jobs were at stake.

Anyone paying attention knows by now that the four council members opposing the plan — Sharon McPhail, JoAnn Watson, Barbara-Rose Collins and Maryann Mahaffey — abruptly reversed their positions Friday afternoon and agreed to the deal. This despite repeated assertions on their part that the move risked placing pension funds in danger of being lost if the stock market took a nosedive.

The fig leaf of reason given for their reversal — Kilpatrick’s agreement not to lay off any more workers this fiscal year and to hold off on any unnecessary property and equipment acquisitions — were things the mayor had previously said he’d do. So the agreement was clearly a face-saving measure for the bloc of four, who had painted themselves into the corner of a burning building.

But even in the midst of a fiscal inferno, it seems Detroit officials always have time for childish sniping and bombastic rhetoric. Take, for example, Councilman Lonnie Bates. On Friday, Auditor General Joe Harris apologized to the council for the harsh tone taken in a memo to the body saying that approving the bond deal was a “no brainer.” Likewise, Finance Director Sean Werdlow, who earlier in the day had complained about the faces McPhail was making (kids, if you keep this up, you’re not going to get your milk and cookies, and we might have to cancel recess), also apologized for taking a less-than-professional tone. Both men are African-American, a point not even worth mentioning except for the fact that Bates responded to their attempts at maturity by saying, “I don’t like the fact that black men have to sit here and apologize.” So that’s Lonnie’s world, one in which being an African-American male means never having to say you’re sorry. Enlightened leadership, indeed.

And then there’s Council President Mahaffey, a person long admired by this column. She seemed close to cracking under the pressure of it all. After the decision to approve the refinance was settled, the mayor and his entourage made a quick exit. “The meeting’s not over,” shrieked Mahaffey, who rose from the sick bed, her arm in a sling, to attend the festivities. “The meeting’s not over.”

No one paid any heed. Unfortunately for Kilpatrick chief of staff Christine Beatty, Mahaffey caught her in the crosshairs as she attempted to follow the others out. “Sit down, Ms. Beatty,” the council president barked. Beattie regained her seat, looking like a chagrined schoolgirl caught chewing gum in class.

The truly unnerving thing is that the city’s dire financial situation is only going to get worse — much worse — before it gets better. Friday’s vote put an end to one immediate crisis, but the conflict over how do deal with the massive budget shortfalls facing us is just beginning. And, given the stakes, it is frightening to contemplate just how ludicrous this circus might become.

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