State of Detroit: Will the city need an emergency manager?

Nov 4, 2011

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing made headlines and provoked cries of outrage yesterday with his pronouncement that the city might have to seek an emergency manager -- and, furthermore, that he might be willing to accept the job. Which is to say, that he wants it.

That outraged City Council president Charles Pugh, who posted this on Facebook, using many capital letters:

“The city of Detroit DOES NOT need an emergency manager. I don’t care WHAT Dave Bing says.”

Well, it may have been sort of satisfying to post that. I’ve been tempted myself to yell, “ I don’t HAVE gray hair. I don’t care WHAT the mirror says.” But it wouldn’t do much good.

The problem is this: Detroit has huge deficits, more weekly obligations to meet than money, and sometime this winter, the money will run out and the city won’t be able to meet payroll.

Dave Bing outlined all this, first in a closed-door session with the council, and then publicly, in a series of interviews.

None of this surprised me, because he had broadly hinted at this when I interviewed him in April. I suspect some on council are especially outraged that Bing is suggesting himself for the job. You can hardly blame him. After all, if he were emergency manager rather than mayor, he could do anything without having to win the approval of that pesky council. Shared government is hard.

Running things as a benevolent dictator might be easier. Nobody knows, of course, if Governor Snyder would actually appoint Bing, if it comes to that. In some ways, it would make sense. The two men have a good relationship, and there is the added plus that Bing was chosen by the voters to run their city.

Yet you can argue that appointing a sitting mayor emergency manager creates a bad precedent. You can imagine a mayor wanting to be emergency manager precisely so they no longer had to negotiate with a council or those exasperating unions.

But Bing wasn’t the first person to hint to me that this day would come. A man named Joe Harris told me it would more than five years ago, and he was in a position to know. Harris was the city’s auditor for ten years. He told me a train wreck was approaching, and that’s what’s happening now.

Right now, by the way, Harris is emergency manager in Benton Harbor, and he’d also be a possible candidate for the Detroit job.

Of course, any talk of an emergency manager could be postponed, at least for a while, if the city council is willing to make some hard decisions and the unions, major concessions.

That remains to be seen. But even if that happens, it may just be a temporary fix. Former state school superintendent Tom Watkins has an interesting column in the internet magazine Dome today. He notes that Wayne County and Detroit are both in a mess, and suggests this might be an ideal time to create a reformed city/county government, like they have in Indianapolis or Nashville.

As he says, a crisis and a scandal are terrible things to waste. We don’t have many options any more, and the city and the state  are fast running out of time.