Merging Detroit and Wayne County is the only long-term strategy that makes sense

Nov 8, 2013

Well, it was quite a week for our state’s largest city. Voters elected a white mayor for the first time since 1969.

Had you gone to Lloyds of London 10 years ago and bet that within a decade, America would have a black president and Detroit a white mayor, today you would be very rich indeed.

But in the city Cadillac founded, attorneys today will offer closing arguments in a trial to determine whether the city will be allowed to file for bankruptcy. While everything in Federal Judge Steven Rhodes’ courtroom is by the book, there is an element of Kabuki-theater unreality about it all.

Nobody really believes the application will be denied. If it were, creditors would tear what remains of Detroit apart with the efficiency of a pack of wolves with a lamb.

But whatever happens isn’t going to be pretty. There was mild surprise in some quarters yesterday at the news that Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Mayor-elect Mike Duggan had met.

Met, and are interested in cooperating with each other. Well, of course they did. You can ignore all the rhetoric Duggan spouted during the campaign. He knows very well both an emergency manager and bankruptcy were necessary.  

Just as Kevyn Orr knows he can’t really run the city while trying to put together a debt elimination plan that the bankruptcy judge will approve.

Make no mistake about this: Mike Duggan, and the rational members of city council, are very happy Orr is there. 

They know terrible decisions are going to have to be made. People are going to be hurt financially, hurt very badly. Later, it will be convenient to blame this on the emergency manager after he goes away, and the newly elected mayor and council are in charge.

The question we should be asking is: in charge of what?

Here’s the big mystery: Why did Mike Duggan seek this job, and what happens when the emergency manager is gone? The elected leaders will be left with an impoverished city shorn of its debts but also some of its assets. What does Mike Duggan do then? This is a man who does not go into situations where he figures to come out looking diminished.

Here’s the scenario that makes the most sense:

Assuming Rick Snyder is elected, Duggan goes to the governor in, say, early 2015 and asks him to support a bill merging Detroit and Wayne County. This is the only long-term strategy that makes sense. 

There are politicians out there who know this, who tell me it privately, but don’t have the guts to say so in public, not yet. The legislature could do this by merely passing a law. 

The county charter will have to be rewritten, but it should be anyway. By that time, there’s reason to think Wayne County may have toppled into emergency manager status as well.  

You may say my idea is politically impossible, but so was Mike Duggan, or, for that matter Barack Obama.

If Duggan could pull that off, he would emerge as the true savior of a city many thought were dead. I don’t know if he is thinking about this. I only know it is the only realistic way to go.