Opinion

Opinion
7:26 am
Fri November 15, 2013

Is there hope for Detroit after bankruptcy?

As we know, no major city has ever been in the position Detroit is in now. What was once the Arsenal of Democracy, a proud and vibrant city of two million people, is now in bankruptcy court, asking a federal judge to let it be reborn.

The city has lost two thirds of its population and far more of its wealth. There are tens of thousands of abandoned buildings.  Earlier this year, Detroit was taken over by the state, and is now being run by a state-appointed emergency manager.

City services are so bad the voters, the vast majority of them black, just elected a mayor who is a white political boss from the suburbs, in the desperate hope that he could somehow fix things. Mike Duggan clearly intends to try.

The scope of the problem is almost beyond imagining, in part because for too long, nobody was willing to admit the facts, not even to themselves. Now, the city has been forced into a rendezvous with reality.

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Opinion
8:31 am
Thu November 14, 2013

Flap over Mary Sue Coleman's speech shows you should think before you tweet

These days, we are constantly being told how great the so-called new media are. Thanks to smart phones, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest of it, we can all share everything with everyone in the world at a nanosecond’s notice. That is to say, without thinking about it.

On occasion, this has allowed journalism to break new records getting the story first. But more often, it has allowed us to break new records in getting things wrong, in embarrassing ourselves and doing harm to others.

One horrible example of this happened last weekend. U of M President Mary Sue Coleman addressed the crowd at Michigan Stadium during the halftime game against Nebraska.

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Opinion
12:28 pm
Wed November 13, 2013

Journalism failure in Flint

We have a new winner in the contest for journalistic understatement of the century. And that is Marjory Raymer, the editor of the Flint Journal, who last week wrote these immortal words: “We didn’t do good enough.“  

Flint elected a new city council last week. Among the winners were a man who served 19 years in prison for murder, and another convicted of felonious assault. Plus two women who filed for bankruptcy. One said she didn’t pay her bills because she needed to give her mother a nice funeral, and added, “If I had to do it again, I would.”  

Now, before you raise an eyebrow at the voters, consider this: The Flint Journal, which is supposed to be that town’s newspaper of record, never reported any of this before people went to the polls.

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Opinion
8:35 am
Tue November 12, 2013

Retiree debt isn’t just a problem in Detroit

Yesterday, I said that if you thought your town’s pension funds were woefully underfunded, you might want to take another look. Well, somebody now has.

Last year, the non-partisan, non-profit Center for Michigan began publishing an online magazine called Bridge, which almost immediately began doing some of the best journalism in the state.

Bridge is now rolling out a series looking at retiree debt and unfunded liabilities in communities across and around the state, and it is clear that the situation is even worse than I imagined. This is not based on emotion or anecdotal evidence.

Eric Scorsone, the former chief economist for the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, recently did an analysis for Michigan State University.  His conclusions can be summed up in a four word quote: “It’s not just Detroit.“  Indeed not.

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Opinion
8:28 am
Mon November 11, 2013

Putting focus on city neighborhoods instead of downtowns

Historically, Detroit has often served the function of sort of a national canary in the coal mine. Miners used to take canaries down the shafts with them, because the birds were much more susceptible to dangerous and invisible gas. When they keeled over, it was time to get out, fast.

Similarly, Detroit’s boom-and-bust auto economy has been an indicator of national trends. When we got rich, the world was better off. When Americans caught an economic cold, Detroit got pneumonia.

This analogy may also apply in connection with the Detroit pension fund crisis. One reason the city is headed for bankruptcy today is that its pension funds seem to have been woefully underfunded. I’ve suggested that, if you live elsewhere, you might want to inquire about the health of your town’s pension funds, and don’t take, “oh, nothing to worry about,” for an answer.

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Opinion
2:44 pm
Fri November 8, 2013

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

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.

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Opinion
8:22 am
Thu November 7, 2013

Stacking the judicial deck

We’ve been focused so much on elections that many of us haven’t much noticed what’s been going on in Lansing.

Well, those who remember the unseeingly way Right to Work was rammed through the legislature in last year’s lame duck session, may find we’re about to get déjà vu all over again.

Republicans have just passed a bill to radically change the way in which judges are selected when citizens sue the state. Essentially, it allows the state Supreme Court to pick four judges from the Court of Appeals to hear these cases. 

The panel that hears lawsuits against the state, by the way, is called the Court of Claims. For many years, this function has been exercised by the circuit judges in Ingham County. That’s the county where Lansing and our state government are located, which has been logistically convenient. This bill will change that.

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Opinion
8:36 am
Wed November 6, 2013

Election results show Michiganders are more tolerant on social issues

So, is there any overall meaning to yesterday’s elections, at least in Michigan? Or is it a case, as former House Speaker Tip O‘Neill said, that “all politics are local?” That it would be hard to read any deeper meaning into results from Detroit, or Saugatuck?

Usually, I’ve found that Tip was right, especially in what are called “off-off year elections;” those held in odd-numbered years. But this year, I think you can find common themes and moods.

Voters wanted change, but want to hedge their bets. They aren’t very fond of government these days; many proposals for new money were voted down, with two exceptions: Schools and roads.

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Opinion
8:39 am
Tue November 5, 2013

Should the Dean of Wayne State University run for congress?

Today is Election Day in local communities all across Michigan. But politicians being politicians, many are already looking ahead to next year’s statewide and congressional elections.

For everyone in the game, deciding whether to run is a matter of weighing hope versus experience; ambition against common sense. Sometimes, long shots pay off. On paper, it made no sense for a freshman senator to run for President six years ago, and not just because there was a formidable front-runner. 

The challenger was black. I thought his candidacy was hopeless. But as the world knows, I was gloriously wrong. However, back in 2000, Barack Obama was the one who was wrong. He challenged an incumbent congressman in a primary race. He lost by more than 2-1, drained his finances and strained his marriage for a time. Every situation is different.

But now, one of Michigan’s potentially biggest stars faces her own dilemma. Few have accomplished as much at a relatively early age as Jocelyn Benson. Barely 36 years old, she is already interim dean of Wayne State University law school. She has degrees from Wellesley, Oxford and Harvard Law. She has a stunning resume that includes stints working for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, NPR and the revered federal appeals judge Damon Keith. 

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Opinion
8:26 am
Mon November 4, 2013

Human rights and Royal Oak

The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak is a fascinating little city which has had far greater historic importance than its size would lead you to expect. And how its citizens vote in tomorrow’s election may provide an important clue to how attitudes are changing statewide.

Royal Oak’s 57,000 citizens are going to be asked to vote on a proposed charter ordinance that would forbid discrimination based on a wide variety of factors, including sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Twelve years ago, Royal Oak voted a similar ordinance down by more than 2-1. But opinions have evolved, and since then, a steadily growing group of states have legalized same-sex marriage. 

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Opinion
9:59 am
Fri November 1, 2013

Selling a billionaire a jail

If you’ve been following what’s been going on in Wayne County government, you may be either scratching your head or banging it against the wall. There was the case of the country employee who got a two hundred thousand dollar severance to move from one well-paid job to another running the airport, something for which she had no experience. Eventually she was fired, but they then had to pay her another seven hundred thousand.

Then, there is the jail. County Executive Robert Ficano and the Wayne County Commissioners decided they needed a new one. Unfortunately, they apparently decided to allow the contractors and subcontractors to approve their own cost overruns. In June, the half-built jail was so far over budget that the county canceled the project, meaning taxpayers are out $155 million dollars.

You would think the people who approved this project would either be arrested or at least forced to resign in disgrace. But no, they’re at it again. Last night I was on a television show with Kevin McNamara, one of the commissioners. 

He wasn’t exactly hanging his head in shame, he was excited. Seems they are about to sell the abandoned jail to billionaire Dan Gilbert, the Rock Financial and Quicken Loans guy, who has been buying large amounts of property in downtown Detroit.

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Opinion
10:57 am
Thu October 31, 2013

The trick's on Detroit

Well, it’s Halloween, and once upon a time the worst that could happen is that kids would rub soap, or occasionally wax, into the windows of your car. Plus the risk that you would get sick from eating too much candy. But we live in a different age, and for Detroit, this is just one more day of horrors in a long series of nightmares.

The city is attempting to file for bankruptcy, and there is a real threat that the courts will make Detroit sell off the assets of the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay some of the creditors.

Detroit desperately needs a turnaround, and a lucky break, and unfortunately, seems doomed over and over to embarrassment. The most recent example is the idea that someone would pay millions of dollars for the destroyed and crumbling old Packard auto plant. True, it is a part of Detroit history. My late father-in-law worked there as a young engineer, and helped close it down when Packard dissolved.

But that was in 1958. The plant long ago became an eyesore. Fifteen years ago, it was a popular site for drug-induced “rave” parties. Today, it is a ghastly and unsalvagable ruin.

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Opinion
11:17 am
Wed October 30, 2013

Money and the Detroit mayor’s race

Today’s papers are reporting the results of a new poll showing one of the candidates in the Detroit mayor’s race leading the other by almost a 2-1 margin.

But there’s another, less well-known poll that may tell the real story of this and most elections. Unlike opinion polls, this one has hard numbers. It is the money poll, and in this one, Mike Duggan is leading Benny Napoleon by almost ten to one.

That’s based on the latest reports filed by Political Action Committes, or PACs, which raise money for campaigns in this state. They usually exist to raise money for candidates for office.

The PAC supporting Napoleon, Detroit Forward, had raised $303,000 dollars, as of ten days ago. The PAC supporting Duggan, called Turnaround Detroit, $2.8 million.

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Opinion
10:51 am
Tue October 29, 2013

Detroit’s disappointing mayoral campaign

We are a week away from what has been the strangest, perhaps most important, and most disappointing mayoral election in the history of Detroit. As nearly everyone knows, Detroit is under an emergency manager, and going through bankruptcy proceedings.

Whomever is elected will be largely a figurehead till the emergency manager leaves, something unlikely to happen until next fall, or later. But when Kevyn Orr does say goodbye, the new mayor will take over leadership of a city that may be shorn of debt, but which will need to get on its feet, fast.

Detroit will still be desperately poor. It cannot expect much new help from either the state or federal governments. Nor is anybody likely to lend Detroit any more money in the foreseeable future.

What Detroit has to do is find a way to serve its citizens and stay solvent. While no one man or woman can do that alone, the citizens have a right to expect the candidates for the city’s top job to tell them how they’d hope to accomplish that.

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Opinion
10:57 am
Mon October 28, 2013

Billionaires and the starving

Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist who himself grew up in semi-poverty, noted over the weekend that the United States is seeing a rapid explosion of billionaires – and of children who are going to school hungry. Not surprisingly, the hungry children part of the equation is truer in Michigan than in most other states.

In fact, one quarter of our children are now below the poverty line, which, by the way, is currently $23,550 for a family of four.

If you have any idea how four people can survive on that amount, you are smarter than I am. That number, by the way, has gone up more than five percent over the last six years.

The Great Recession may officially be over, and bank profits and the stock market are skyrocketing. But there’s very little sign of that affecting those who are poor. Actually, things have been getting worse for them, and are about to get worse still in Michigan.

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Opinion
9:32 am
Fri October 25, 2013

What journalists and Tea Partiers have in common

There’s something, believe it or not, that Tea Party conservatives and liberals have in common. They believe that  government at all levels needs oversight, and people need to be able to easily find out what their governments are doing.

And in one of politics’ great ironies, two of the most conservative state representatives have introduced bills that everyone, but especially groups like journalists and the ACLU should be doing everything they can to get behind and support.

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Opinion
11:02 am
Thu October 24, 2013

Remember the roads?

Earlier this week I had a meeting in Ann Arbor and then went to Detroit. When I swung off the freeway onto a surface street I hit a pothole I couldn’t see so hard I was convinced I’d lose a tire.

I was lucky. Everything seems fine. But I drive a lot, and have lost two tires in similar episodes in recent years.

We need to fix our roads. Figuring out how to do so is the responsibility of our lawmakers. But they won’t do it. Which means  we are all going to pay more and more to fix damage to our cars. 

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Opinion
8:49 am
Wed October 23, 2013

Detroit bankruptcy on trial

Well, today is the day that the City of Detroit goes to court. Bankruptcy court, that is. Not to settle the final details of what will happen, but to ask the judge to allow it to declare bankruptcy.

This has been going on so long now that there’s a tendency to take Detroit bankruptcy as an established fact. In fact, all that has happened is that the Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, filed a petition in July asking to be allowed to declare bankruptcy. Since then, we’ve been treated to a long series of revelations that make bankruptcy appear the only option.

Detroit has close to $20 billion dollars in unfunded liabilities, and next to no assets. It wouldn’t make much of a dent if they sold the entire collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and then sold the building to a billionaire who wanted a mausoleum.

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Opinion
8:23 am
Mon October 21, 2013

Putting another Bush on a winning GOP ticket

Well, welcome to another week. The early signs aren’t auspicious. Much of the week is supposed to be cold and rainy. We should have had the excitement of a World Series to look forward to tomorrow, but our state’s team succeeded in blowing it.

Detroit’s bankruptcy eligibility trial begins this week, and you know you’ve got problems when the best outcome you can hope for is that the judge finds that the city is a hopeless failure.

I’m sure we’ll be discussing all that and more atrocities as the week goes on. But as a Monday diversion, I thought I’d offer a bit of interesting political trivia that occurred to me this weekend.

The next presidential election is more than three years away, and our politicians ought to be concentrating on a million other things, but if you know anything about politics, you know politicians -- and political junkies -- are always looking to the next election. And there is something different about this time for the Republicans.

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Opinion
8:10 am
Mon October 21, 2013

The emergency manager idea isn't all bad

Government dysfunction and the shutdown dominated the headlines this week, but for some Michigan cities, crisis has been the theme for years.

Five cities -  including Detroit - are run by state-appointed emergency managers.

In Benton Harbor, the story is shifting to how to return the government back to local control.

Let me get this out– understanding some of you might start yelling at your radio - or computer screen.

I’ve been a supporter of Michigan’s emergency manager law.

Well – sort of.

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