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Stir It Up: Musical chairs

With Saunteel Jenkins out at City Council, who's next?



The latest news we have from the Detroit City Council is that member Saunteel Jenkins is resigning from the governing body just as it would seem there's some governing to do.

The current council — elected by districts for the first time in nearly a century — was elected last November. Since the city was run by an emergency manager for 18 months, it's only now that our mayor and city council are really in charge. So it seems strange that Jenkins picked this moment to leave. But this is the Detroit City Council, where strange things are known to happen.

Jenkins has witnessed much of that strangeness. She was voted president of the council after then-sitting president Charles Pugh disappeared, and she was a candidate last year to take the seat again with the new group. However, Councilwoman Brenda Jones surprised most watchers with her inside politicking, striking a deal that would make her president and District 2 representative George Cushingberry president pro-tem. Jones took the post, 5-4, with her own vote and those of four newbie council members. Jenkins, an at-large council member, was suddenly without a title or a district. I don't know what that means in Detroit's new political order, but apparently Jenkins didn't find it the most appealing choice for the next few years.

This isn't the first time a member has left council in midstream. Just last year, Kwame Kenyatta resigned in June because of health issues. President Pro-Tem Gary Brown quit a few days later to work for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. And shortly thereafter, Pugh's seat was declared empty after he disappeared from public view amid allegations of sexual impropriety with a teenager.

It became another dysfunctional council as they fought about a state deal to lease Belle Isle and other details of settling Detroit's financial woes. The council seated in 2009, was supposed to be the group that ended the drama coming from city government, but they managed to continue much of the posing that had affected city government for the past decade.

Our new council has mostly avoided the dysfunction that plagued them in the past, which is surprising because Jones was known as one of the biggest opponents of emergency management leading up to Orr's installation. But political reality has been known to change the minds of many a politician, and council has little choice but to go along with the bankruptcy process that Orr has pursued. They also need to convince bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes that city government will follow through on the plan as presented. Council needs to toe the line or plunge the city into a fight with the state to change the direction of dealing with our fiscal crisis.

They seem to have chosen to get along. So much so that in July, USA Today reported that "the battles between the mayor's office and council members have all but disappeared."

In September, they voted unanimously to put the mayor and themselves back into power, keeping Orr around only to complete the bankruptcy proceedings. There was no squealing from Orr or Gov. Snyder about that, so it seems they're willing to take their chances with this administration.

So is council ready to step up and take responsibility? Let's look back over their actions in 2014 as a clue to what they might do in the future.

Big Burp: It might seem like more of a hiccup as time goes by, but back in January it echoed embarrassingly across the metro area when council member George Cushingberry was pulled over by police, who found an open alcohol container and some weed in his car — and he was not arrested. In the days that followed, there was a collective moan of "not again" among Detroiters who feared another high-profile scandal. Cushingberry claimed that he had been racially profiled by police. On the other hand, there were accusations that Cushingberry had received preferential treatment in not having been administered a breathalyzer test and not being arrested on the spot. Nothing ever came of the incident, but it wasn't a great beginning. Things seem to have quieted down since then.

By the way, Cushingberry claimed the weed belonged to an aide who is a medical marijuana patient.

Duggan-Jones lovefest: Ike McKinnon is Detroit's deputy mayor, but with all the love being slung around between the mayor and the city council president over the past several months, you'd think Brenda Jones is the next in line for his office. The two have been selling their great cooperation to the public — and the bankruptcy judge — at least in front of the cameras. They're so tight it seems like when Mayor Mike Duggan walks into a room, so does Jones. They defer to each other at speaking engagements in a tag-team format for engaging the public. They issued a joint statement to the public on the beating of Steve Utash after he stopped to help a boy he'd hit with his pickup truck. The two are inseparable.

Water Disconnect: Council voiced some dismay over the water shut-offs that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department started last winter and continues today, but did nothing substantial to stop the inhumane practice in one of America's poorest cities. Council actually went so far as to raise rates that are already higher than the national average — although Cushingberry and Mary Sheffield voted against that. Council also seemed to have nothing to say when scolded by United Nations rapporteurs last week.

On the other hand, they approved creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority, a regional water overseer that has been a controversial concept for years. The new authority will lease the water system for $50 million per year for 40 years and avoid privatization, which had been considered. Jones and Sheffield voted against the authority, but council had little choice, as Orr would've likely pushed it through.

Agreements abound: There was unanimous agreement on a lot of big-issue votes this year: to transfer Detroit Institute of Arts assets to a charitable trust; the transfer of 39 parcels of land to the Red Wings arena district for $1; transfer of 16,000 properties to the Detroit Land Bank; and agreements to build and operate the M-1 rail project along Woodward.

There was a whole lot of transferring going on. Some of it, DIA and Land Bank, pretty much to help along the grand bargain to settle Detroit's bankruptcy.

Overall, it looks like this is not a city council that's going to fight tooth-and-nail for progressive issues. It's not like we've seen much of that in recent years anyhow. The last great progressive on city council was former president Maryann Mahaffey. Saunteel Jenkins cut her political teeth as a member of Mahaffey's staff, but there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then.

For the time being, this council as a group seems to have decided to ride through the bankruptcy. That's not going to get reversed; even after it's over, there's going to be some sort of oversight board to make sure the city stays on the straight and narrow path financially.

The political infighting will take place mostly quietly, and behind the scenes. You can bet that's what's happening right now as council considers Jenkins' replacement.

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