Detroiters split over emergency manager: good, bad, or just inevitable?

Mar 4, 2013

Governor Snyder announced last week that he’ll appoint an emergency manager for the city of Detroit.

That means an unelected person will have sweeping powers to try and stop Detroit’s financial hemorrhaging.

Of course, emergency managers are controversial. And though they don’t have a choice in the matter, Detroiters are very much divided about whether this is a good thing.

“Both are going to hurt, which will hurt the less?”

About a week before Governor Snyder’s announcement, a few dozen came to an evening community meeting at a northwest Detroit church.

The weary Detroiters shared stories about conditions in their neighborhoods—and problems like illegal dumping, crime, and unsecured vacant houses.

“If you just drive down in [my] area, it’s like a war zone,” one woman told the audience. “It’s embarrassing.”

The people here already knew an emergency manager was coming. But they were split over whether that was a good or bad thing—or just an inevitable one.

Some people, like Tom Wilson, think it’s ok. It’s either that, he thinks, or bankruptcy.

”Both of ‘em are going to hurt, which is going hurt the less?” mused Wilson, a Detroiter since 1953. “Let’s go ahead and get this thing done. Get hurt, and go through the healing process.”

It’s no secret that Detroit is drowning in red ink. And in that respect, it’s not alone.

Several other Michigan cities, like Flint and Benton Harbor, have been under some form of emergency management for years now. So has Ecorse, a blue-collar Detroit suburb with fewer than 10,000 people.

Joyce Parker is Ecorse’s emergency financial manager. She’s been there since 2009, chipping away at the city’s $14.6 million deficit. Now, she’s in the extended process of transitioning out.

“The budget for the city is balanced. The bills have been paid in a timely manner,” Parker said.

Parker says an effective emergency manager needs to listen—to a city’s elected officials and to community members. But at the end of the day, she has the power to make painful decisions. In Ecorse’s case, city staff was cut by about 40%. The police and fire departments are merging, and emergency medical service was privatized.

As a result, Parker says she thinks Ecorse is on a “sustainable path.”

“To a great extent, I do believe the city is stronger than it has been in the past,” Parker says.

Will an emergency manager help or hurt Detroit?

But many others argue that cities in trouble need real resources—not someone who just cuts costs, tears up union contracts, and sells off assets, all while usurping the powers of local elected officials (Michigan's new emergency manager law, Public Act 436, kicks into effect March 28).

That’s Rashida Tlaib’s view. A state legislator representing Detroit and Ecorse, Tlaib grew up in southwest Detroit as the oldest of 14 children in a tight-knit immigrant family.

“We all used to be on the same block,” Tlaib recalled. “It was…a dream for us, to kind of all live and raise our kids together. And I’m the only one left.”

Tlaib gets visibly emotional when she talks about what Detroit’s going right now. She fears that an emergency manager will make life so unbearable that her neighbors—many lifelong Detroiters like her--will just leave, and the city will be doomed.

She’s also concerned that an emergency manager will just open up new avenues for corruption in city hall.

“An emergency manager should not be coming in and moving around our taxpayer dollars, without any kind of accountability or transparency,” Tlaib says.  

“I don’t understand how we can really, truly change things if we’re not self-governing ourselves.”

But Vince Keenan, another lifelong Detroiter and civic activist, says though  “no one wants to be under emergency management," the other options have already vanished.

“This is happening because of money,” Keenan said. “And we don’t have it. That’s really what it is.”

His biggest fear is that the city will have to renege on some of the promises it’s made—to people like police officers and firefighters.

But Keenan says Detroit city government as a whole—what some Detroiters just call “downtown”--hasn’t really been serving its citizens for a long time.

But as a result, lots of passionate and dedicated Detroiters have taken matters into their own hands at the micro-level—and done some amazing things. Keenan thinks a period of state control could be an opportunity for everyone—including elected officials--to focus there, and recharge Detroit’s true civic lifeblood: its neighborhoods.

“There’s plenty of examples of really sort of incredible effort being put on by folks that had at one point in time felt abandoned,” Keenan says. “And have built infrastructure to support not only themselves, and their neighbors.

“You’re going find an emphasis on the civic infrastructure of neighborhoods, which as a practical reality in Detroit…has grown to be independent of what’s happening downtown.”

But everyone acknowledges that there a few big things—like public safety or waste disposal—that Detroit city government should be doing.

Governor Rick Snyder confidently proclaims that an emergency manager can fix Detroit’s “core services” if the state and the city can “partner.” But no one really knows what that means yet—nor do they know who the emergency manager will be.

At best, emergency managers across Michigan have had mixed track records. And everyone knows that Detroit—still by far Michigan’s largest city—is a whole different ball game.