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Detroit’s turning point?

Despite the consent agreement fight, something good could come of this



When the Detroit Charter Commission convened a couple of years ago, they considered whether we should be in a strong mayor system or a weak mayor system. They considered how much power City Council members would have under the district system that Detroiters voted for. If they'd looked at the city's screwed-up finances, they might have considered that Detroiters wouldn't be calling the shots here anyway and saved themselves and the rest of us some time. 

Gov. Rick Snyder (the sly nerd) bent over backward with rhetoric that this is not a state takeover of the city, and there's wording in the consent agreement that obfuscates what it actually is: a state takeover. The mayor and City Council stay in place, but with a nine-member "advisory" board and the state Treasury Department peering over their shoulders. And while the governor doesn't have a representative on the board with veto power (as was the case with Gov. John Engler's Detroit School Board takeover in the 1990s), there is a de facto state veto because the Financial Advisory Board cannot spend any significant money without the specific consent of state Treasurer Andy Dillon. Maybe that's why they call it a consent agreement — our elected leaders won't be able to do anything without permission.

I didn't get mad when the feds used a consent decree to force changes at the Detroit Police Department a decade ago. So while I don't like what the state just did, I'd want to evaluate it with something of a cool head. We've seen some severe government bullying around here before. Remember Poletown? In the 1980s, the city pushed a neighborhood off the map to make room for a General Motors assembly plant. Then, in the 1990s, the county used the policy of "eminent domain" to take private property to make space for the construction of Ford Field and Comerica Park. None of those instances is of the magnitude of the entire city of Detroit, but it just goes to show that when big money and big government want something, they'll move mountains — or at least a neighborhood — to get what they want.

If the city had acted 20 years ago, or even 10, this might have been avoided. But once the state revenue-sharing money dried up in 2002 and the city didn't adjust its operations, we were headed for this. With the great recession of 2007, it became nearly inevitable. Not because consent agreements or emergency managers are inevitable during municipal fiscal crises, but that is the playbook the state has chosen to follow. I'd love to blame it on the corporate style of Gov. Snyder, but Gov. Granholm started this emergency financial manager thing and Snyder refined it to an emergency manager with seemingly unfettered power. In order to avoid the dreaded EM, the city went for the consent decree. 

These aren't new ideas. Former Detroit Auditor General Joe Harris pretty much recommended most of the financial plan we are now pursuing in a blistering critique of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and City Council in 2005. In 2001, Harris ran for mayor with the same message. At the time I thought his analysis of the situation was correct, but his total lack of charisma and a political machine to push his ideas doomed his ability to be effective.

"The City's current dilemma is not the result of a lack of information by City officials," Harris said in 2005. "The five-year forecast I provided Your Honorable Body two years ago, Mayor Archer's 10-year forecast provided to you five years ago, both pointed to the current financial crisis. ...

"It is noteworthy that no plans have been made to incorporate the structural changes recommended by the Auditor General to fix the Department of Transportation or the Law Department's Workers Compensation Division, or to upgrade the City's telecommunications network, or to reduce the City's risk management costs, or to modernize the Public Lighting Department's Mistersky plant — recommendations amounting to savings of more than $50 million annually."

Harris has since gone on to become emergency manager of Benton Harbor. In two years, he's fired a chunk of city personnel, suspended the decision-making powers of elected officials and allowed Whirlpool Corporation, Benton Harbor's main industry, to do pretty much what it wants. He's also cut the city deficit from $2.5 million to $650,000.

But there's even more than what Harris suggested in this consent agreement. Some of it's good; at least it looks that way on the page. How it actually plays out will be telling. For instance, there is a section related to Detroit-Focused Economic Gardening. It says the city will "use a comprehensive set of tools for accelerating entrepreneurship, business growth, access to capital, placemaking and talent enhancement."

But how will something like that actually play out? Will the city empower the small community and market gardeners to create a system of distribution and processing? Will it help them acquire land? I recently spoke with a market gardener who is trying to buy a lot he has been working, but he can't even find out who owns it. At the very least the gardeners are cleaning up vacant lots and clearing buried debris in addition to remediating the quality of the soil and eliminating garbage through composting. Or will the doors be opened only to large corporate operations such as the one first proposed by Hantz Farms a few years ago. Hantz has since become a partner with community groups on the east side and changed its focus to tree farming. Our post-consent "advisers" could well fixate on corporate agribusiness as the way to fill tax coffers as opposed to the slower, surer community-building process.

The Greening of Detroit has been educating and creating master gardeners for years, and the Grown in Detroit section at Eastern Market is but one of the outlets where they can sell their produce. Other garden markets are popping up at churches, schools and other places around town. Indeed we are poised for this to blow up if state and city laws are tweaked to allow it.

There are going to be big fights. The "labor reform" the document refers to is going to be a major attempt to gut unions, a basic move from the conservative playbook. And the unions are going to fight it tooth and nail. The carnage from that one fight alone could be enough to bury the city in blood and guts. 

We got here because our elected leadership didn't pay attention to good advice, and we the people did not demand that they do better. Kilpatrick particularly filled his administration with incompetent cronies and had short-sighted, self-serving goals. But this reckoning has been a long time coming.

The opportunity is here for something good to come of this. Foremost in my mind would be the empowerment of Detroiters at the community level to do the good things they have been attempting to do, so far with little help from an incompetent city administration. If we can couple civic competence with community engagement in the long term — and the long term is what we should be thinking about — we'll be able to see this as a good thing. If not, well, the squabbling and finger-pointing will continue until all is lost.

A few weeks ago, an urban economics professor from Bethel College in Minnesota came to check out Detroit for a few days. I took him around to see some of the things going on in the city — the good and the bad. His assessment was that fixing Detroit was going to take a trillion dollars and a long time — say 20 years — to turn this place around. As the Black Eyed Peas sang, let's get it started.


Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and
former editor of Metro Times. Send
comments to [email protected]

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