Detroit's City Council might prolong state control

Jan 13, 2014

If you own a hotel, this is a good week to be in Detroit, where thousands of journalists and auto industry people are flocking to town for the North American International Auto Show.

Hopefully this will bring some good publicity for the city, which badly needs it. Last week was a setback, especially in terms of city government. But I think most people don’t realize how damaging it was. More on this in a moment.

But first, this will be the first time ever that the auto show will be in a Detroit where the mayor is not the most powerful figure. Today, that would be emergency manager Kevyn Orr.

A week ago, we would have figured this was an anomaly, and that next year, Mayor Mike Duggan would be ready to welcome the auto buffs to a normal city where the elected officials were fully in charge. Now, however, that’s not so certain.

Here’s why. Those in charge of reforming the city’s finances also know the political culture needs to change. Many Detroiters signaled a willingness to do that last fall, when they were willing to step outside their comfort zones to elect as their mayor a white guy from the suburbs with a Mr. Fix It reputation.

What many hoped was that the new City Council would then reelect Saunteel Jenkins as its president. Jenkins, a sophisticated and savvy veteran of city government, hasn’t always agreed with the mayor or emergency manager. But she has shown a clear dedication to rational behavior and improving Detroit.

But instead, the new Council opted to choose Brenda Jones, who in the last two years has consistently voted against reform, and elected as president pro tem George Cushingberry, a man in his 60s, a long-time legislator who might best be described as emblematic of Detroit’s old political culture.

Cushingberry was also put in charge of the potentially powerful budget committee. The very next night he made headlines – not in a good way.

He allegedly almost hit a police car, while driving a vehicle with an open rum bottle on the floor and where the smell of marijuana was so strong it could be smelled outside the car. Cushingberry claimed innocence and said he was a victim of racial profiling, though the police who stopped him were not white.

Now, this sordid incident is not likely to give Lansing confidence in Detroit’s ability to run its own affairs.  And though Kevyn Orr is likely to depart by the end of September, when the council has the ability to fire him, here’s what you may not know: That doesn’t automatically mean the city reverts to local control.

Consider the case of Pontiac, where emergency management ended in August. The state promptly appointed a city administrator and a transition advisory board who jointly have pretty much all the powers the city manager did.

Detroit is a much bigger city. But I could easily imagine Gov. Snyder appointing Mike Duggan city administrator on top of his duties as mayor, and also giving the current financial advisory board enhanced powers.

I am not saying that will happen. But City Council’s leadership decision was far more of a risk than I suspect the members knew.         

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.