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Wild kingdom

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The battle for power at City Hall is never pretty, but these days it’s getting downright ugly. Last week, the Detroit City Council filed suit against Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in circuit court. The lawsuit seeks a court order forcing the mayor to fund and reopen both the Belle Isle Zoo and the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs. The fight goes back to last spring, when, facing a gaping budget deficit, the mayor proposed the closures to save money.

On the matter of the zoo, the council rejected his proposal and found $700,000 to operate the facility. The mayor nixed the council’s action, but the legislative body, which is supposed to have the final word in budgetary matters, overturned his veto. Undaunted, the mayor ignored the council’s action and kept the zoo closed, moving the animals to the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak. Later in the year, 88 percent of city voters said they favored keeping the zoo open, but it remained closed.

In the matter of the Consumer Affairs Department, a 1973 City Charter amendment created the agency to assist Detroiters with any number of consumer issues, with the intent of preventing people from getting ripped off. Under the leadership of Esther Shapiro, a Coleman Young appointee, the department gained notoriety for its success. But in recent years it’s been criticized for its ineffectiveness.

During his budget address last year, Kilpatrick proposed axing the department and reassigning its functions to other departments. The council rejected the proposal. To date, no department head has been named, “there’s no leadership there whatsoever,” and the department has been effectively eliminated, says council attorney Philip Colista.

In both instances “the mayor forgot his responsibility — or didn’t give a damn about his responsibility — to follow the law,” says Colista.

Kilpatrick spokesman Jamaine Dickens says the mayor believes he acted “well within his powers as chief executive officer of the city.”

The Belle Isle Zoo has been underfunded for years and is in desperate need of repairs, with the cost to properly run it starting at $1.5 million, Dickens says. “Right now, the zoo is in such disrepair it would be a safety hazard for the animals there to open the zoo.”

Dickens says the mayor didn’t dissolve the Consumer Affairs Department, but instead moved two of its three divisions to different locations in the Coleman Young Municipal Center. “I don’t think the citizens of this city are impacted one bit” by the move, says Dickens. “I don’t think they care one bit where the division is located, as long as the employees are there for the citizens’ disposal, and they are.”

When asked how the mayor feels about the suit, Dickens says, “We’re taking the high road.”

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