Commentary: Getting used to an emergency manager

Mar 18, 2013

Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager in waiting, got a surprise media baptism. Someone discovered that he had a couple unpaid liens against his Maryland home, apparently for unpaid unemployment insurance for a child care provider. He immediately paid up and said he was embarrassed.

Welcome to the world of public scrutiny, 24/7. That’s not something attorneys in the private sector are used to. But the world of politics is completely different.

Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer told me that he had learned that if you want to be in politics, you better be prepared to lie there naked and have every orifice examined.

Kevyn Orr seems to be smart and perceptive, and if there are any unpaid parking tickets out there, or worse, my guess is that he is now working overtime to put his house in order.

Beyond that, however, it seems to me that his launch has been both flawless and shrewd. Detroit’s emergency manager doesn’t take command for another week, which gives people time to get used to the idea.

I’ve been asked by several people if I thought there might be any civil unrest. I told them I sincerely doubted it, especially if Orr moves quickly to improve services, especially police. He has an advantage in that things are so bad, it shouldn’t be hard to show some success.

The final report of the state financial review team said they were completely unable to discover how many cops the city actually has on the street. My guess is that this was because someone was trying to conceal how few there are.

Getting more police out on patrol would do wonders. There are those who are trying to stir things up. The day the emergency manager was announced, I was copied on one mass e-mail from a radical Episcopal pastor in the city.

He called this “corporate state occupation,” and said, “It’s time to resist this with our bodies. We will need to make this city creatively ungovernable.” To that, another minister remarked, “it is already ungovernable.” Which is the problem.

Nobody should be thrilled that the city is being temporarily governed by an appointed leader. But those who talk as if this were an enemy occupation are missing something. Cities are not independent sovereign nations. They are creations of the state. The legislature has the authority to dissolve Detroit if it wanted to.

Nobody is depriving Detroiters of voting; city council elections this year will go on as scheduled. Eventually, the people elected in November are likely to be back in charge. The new city council can, if it chooses, get rid of the emergency manager in a year and a half.

Those who are angriest say people are being disenfranchised because their elected representatives will temporarily lose power. What they don’t say is that Detroiters haven’t exactly been excited about democracy.

Know what percentage of registered voters showed up in the last city election? Less than 23 percent. More than three out of four didn’t even bother to vote.

Longtime city council member Sheila Cockrel said it best in a recent column she wrote: “We need to just fix this,” she said. By any means necessary, and for now, the emergency manager is the only tool in town.

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.