Detroit City Council approves consent agreement--what's next?

Apr 5, 2012

It’s all but official: Detroit and the state have struck a deal to avoid an emergency manager for the city.

In a contentious 5-4 vote, the City Council approved a consent agreement with the state. The narrow vote came after an emotionally-charged debate that sometimes erupted into hostility.

But everyone agreed on one point: the city of Detroit will never be the same.

In Detroit, pastors’ voices carry a lot of weight. And it’s fair to call Detroit’s Council of Baptist Pastors one of the most politically-influential groups in the city.

For the most part, they’ve loudly protested Public Act 4, the state’s emergency manager law.

So when Baptist leaders stood up to speak before the City Council vote Wednesday, not many people expected what Reverend Michael Owens had to say.

“We believe that an agreement and action plan needs to be crafted and approved that restructures city government, establishes fiscal accountability and discipline, and creates a sustainable track record of recovery,” Owens told Council members.

Owens was interrupted at several points by exclamations of disbelief from City Council member JoAnn Watson, who muttered "Unbelievable" and "Shame!" at several points during Owens' speech.

Watson has been one of the fiercest opponents of any state intervention in Detroit. Minutes later, she blasted Owens and the other pastors, telling them their position made no sense.

“I’m just stunned," Watson told Owens, "because you marched with me in Lansing against Public Act 4."

"We are adamantly against Public Act 4," Owens insisted.

“Well, then you are adamantly against this consent agreement," Watson snapped. "The whole legal basis of this agreement is Public Act 4.”

For Watson and most of the residents who packed the Council chambers Wednesday evening, this consent agreement is nothing less than a hostile takeover—one aimed at stripping Detroiters of their voting power and the city of its remaining assets.

The deal does set up new, powerful players within Detroit city government to make sure the city restructures to avoid insolvency.

They include a nine-member financial advisory board, a chief financial officer, and a project manager with broad powers over the city’s budget.

And that restructuring will be painful and sweeping. City departments will disappear, some services will be cut and others privatized.

And unions face a harsh new reality: they must either accept the state’s terms for new contracts, or have them imposed.

City Council President Charles Pugh says that restriction on collective bargaining rights bothered him.

But he says the city is on the verge of bankruptcy, and faces a stark choice: either accept these terms, or get an emergency manager.

“So my vote today was to avoid emergency management, and to get this city back to some fiscal stability,” Pugh said.

Even after the session ended, some Council members continued to face verbal abuse from angry citizens.

"You all ought to be the first ones to hang from the tree," shouted one woman. "Giving away your powers! It's idiotic."

"But it won't be the white folks hanging you this time," a man added.

Council member Saunteel Jenkins admitted such accusations are hurtful. But she says her conscience in clear.

“I know it’s the most important vote that I’ll ever make on this Council," Jenkins said. "But I believe it’s possibly the most important vote in the history of this city. Certainly in my lifetime.”

But Jenkins admits she’s still nervous about the whole thing, because no one really knows what the future holds for Detroit.

A couple of things are certain. One is that this agreement still faces a host of legal challenges that could keep things very complicated in the near term.

In the longer term, it’s also clear the city of Detroit will be a radically different place. And for better or worse, it’s a place where unelected officials and leaders in Lansing will have a much greater hand in shaping its future.