Protesters opposed to hiring the Jones Day law firm shut down the Detroit City Council meeting for about 90 minutes on Tuesday. The action began with a few people kneeling and refusing to leave the chamber, then grew to about 30 people locking arms and singing “We shall not be moved.”
Eventually, one protestor crossed into the area reserved for councilmembers and city staff. A plain-clothed police officer serving as council security picked him up and hauled him from the chambers. The protester wasn’t arrested, though, and returned a short time later.
As soon as the protest began, council members, led by President Charles Pugh, stood and quickly left the room. Only Councilwoman JoAnn Watson and Brenda Jones remained. Both addressed the protesters, many of whom had voiced their opposition to hiring Jones Day during the public comment period of the meeting.
No one from the public spoke in favor of the contract.
After the public comments, David Whitaker, director of the council’s Research & Analysis division, expressed concerns regarding potential conflicts of interests involving Jones Day. In addition to having Orr as an equity partner until he was appointed by the state to be Detroit’s emergency manager, the firm also represents Bank of America, which is part of a group of creditors owed $400 million by the city as the result of a bond deal that went awry.
City Attorney Edward Keelean vouched for the process used by the Bing administration to select Jones Day, and also said that, based on their well-established reputation, both Orr and the firm could be expected to act ethically. He also said that any firm as large as Jones Day could be expected to have some conflict of interest when taking on a task like representing Detroit in negotiations with creditors, and that there are ways to handle such conflicts.
After the protest erupted and most of her fellow councilmembers had left the chambers, Watson told the audience that, in her opinion, the council shouldn’t vote on the contract at all. Aside from concerns about hiring Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s former law firm to oversee the city’s financial restructuring, Watson warned that, if a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s emergency manager law is successful, the $3.35 million contract will remain in place.
If the council didn’t vote on the contract, or voted it down, it is assumed that Orr would have approved it anyway. Under the Emergency Manager law, the council has been reduced to essentially an advisory role. Approval of the contact by the council, though, would give it legitimacy.
And that’s exactly what it got.
After about an hour of singing, about seven uniformed police officers, led by Deputy Chief James Tolbert, arrived to restore order. He told everyone who didn’t want to be arrested to exit the council chambers; they would be allowed back in once the room was cleared. Everyone who stayed would be subject to arrest.
Before that could happen though, Watson called for some of the protesters to meet with her behind closed doors. After several minutes, they returned to their seats at sat quietly until all the councilmembers returned to their seats at the table.
Before the vote, Watson reiterated her view that the council should not vote on the contact. Her motion to take no action was defeated. The council, without any discussion, then voted 5-2 to contract with Jones Day.
Watson and Jones were the no votes. Pugh, President Pro Tem Gary Brown, Saunteel Jenkins, James Tate and Andre Spivey voted yes. Kenneth Cockrel Jr. and Kwame Kenyatta were absent.
As soon as the council had voted, the audience erupted, shouting the word “shame” over and over. Several people, including Detroit School Board member Elena Herrada and the Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, were led away by police.
News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.