Commentary: Acid test for Detroit

Sep 20, 2012

Does Detroit have any chance of avoiding bankruptcy and a state takeover of some kind? Frankly, I don’t know. The odds right now look bad for the city being able to continue governing itself.

But miracles and surprises happen. And right now, something is going on which should be a pretty clear test of whether those running the Michigan’s largest city can avoid disaster.

I’m talking about the negotiated deal to lease Belle Isle, the city’s once-lovely island park, to the state, which would run it as a state park for at least the next 30 years. The city no longer has the money to even maintain, let alone improve, Belle Isle, which is slowly declining into shabbiness.

Under the deal announced last week, the state would pour millions into the park and fix it up. There was one part of the agreement I knew would generate controversy:

Since Belle Isle would be part of the state park system, cars would have to purchase the annual ten dollar state park pass sticker in order to drive on the island. I thought that would provoke an outcry from those claiming Detroiters can’t afford it, and in any case, shouldn’t have to pay to visit an asset the city still technically owns.

But things never even got that far. City Council refused to even consider the deal, for a number of reasons. The nine members clearly resented that they hadn’t been consulted at all.

There were also the usual arguments from the three members who seem dead set against cooperating or compromising with any outside authority, no matter what, because of a paranoia that “outside forces,” meaning the white power structure, want to take power and control away from Detroiters, meaning poor black people.

Yet the council also had some reasonable objections. Mainly, the state hasn’t spelled out exactly what it plans to do for the island, or how much it plans to spend. Nor did representatives of the state show up to answer questions and explain to council how all this would work.

That was a major blunder. Some of this is probably the fault of the mayor, who has become so irritated by the sometimes obstructionist actions of the council that he increasingly seems unwilling to work with them.

But the governor’s office should have known better, and no matter what he thinks of council, Mayor Bing’s job requires trying to work with them to get things done. This deal is crucial.

The city’s ability to continue to govern itself stands on the point of a knife. If it falls into bankruptcy, nobody wins. The city cannot take care of Belle Isle in the way it needs to be maintained. Offsetting its costs and improve it is essential to all concerned.

So cooler heads need to try. Councilmen Gary Brown and Ken Cockrel, who have been mainly silent, are key to getting this done, but beyond that, the mayor and City Council President Charles Pugh have to find a way to work together.

Because if they don’t, and they lose their city, everyone in this state will suffer. Nobody will try to assess relative guilt.

Instead, those running the city now will lose not only power and control, but respect, and their reputations forever.

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.