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Keeping Kevyn Orr at Detroit's helm – for now – is a creative solution

Sep 26, 2014

Yesterday Detroit’s City Council made a decision so sane, sensible and rational it may have left some flabbergasted.

The council voted unanimously to transfer power for all day-to-day decisions back to the city’s elected leadership.

But at the same time, emergency manager Kevyn Orr will remain on the job for issues having to do with Detroit’s ongoing bankruptcy case. That trial is still going on in federal court in Detroit, proceedings that may continue three more weeks.

After that, Judge Steven Rhodes will take as much time as he needs to consider his decision. At this point, it seems extremely unlikely that he will reject the city’s application outright. He could, however, require changes in Detroit’s suggested blueprint for the future, the so-called “Plan of Adjustment.”

Orr could be there for a few weeks or months yet. Once the courts sign off on the city’s plan, his responsibilities will end. Leaving him there for now, however, was a creative solution virtually nobody saw coming.

Yesterday, Detroit’s elected leaders really did act like leaders. And that is the best and most stunning news of all.

When Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Orr emergency manager a year and a half ago, it was taken for granted that City Council would fire him at the first legal opportunity, which is now.

Yet after 16 hours of closed-door sessions, the council hammered out a solution that seemed amazingly wise.

Now, this may not be as seamless as it first appears. Supposedly Orr still has supreme powers for issues having to do with the bankruptcy, while the mayor and council once again have power over everything else. There could still be some gray areas of potential friction, especially if changes in the Plan of Adjustment are needed.

But I don’t expect this to be a much of a problem. Yesterday’s hugely encouraging solution is fundamentally a tribute to two men. First, Kevyn Orr. Much of Detroit was predisposed to hate him when he was imposed on the city by Gov. Snyder.

Detroiters had their political powers stripped from them and given to some bankruptcy lawyer from Washington, D.C. Astonishingly, he gradually won many people over.

Then there was Mike Duggan, the pudgy, bald, white politician from Livonia who persuaded a city full of poor black people to elect him mayor because he has a reputation for getting the job done.

To be sure, council deserves credit too. Not long ago, this was perhaps America’s most dysfunctional elected body. They seemed incapable of grasping economic reality, and refused to make simple rational decisions, such as allowing the state to fix up Belle Isle, a park the city could no longer afford to run.  

When Orr arrived, the council president seemed more interested in his own personal fitness video than the city’s crisis. He soon fled in a panic after it was learned that he had a relationship with a teenage boy.

Detroit government looks very different today. However, this is anything but over. The mayor and council won’t have complete authority for years; their budget decisions will be subject to the approval of the state’s Financial Review Commission.

Staying solvent and working toward prosperity is not going to be easy. But yesterday, Detroit’s elected leaders really did act like leaders. And that is the best and most stunning news of all.

​​​​​​​​​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.