Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Snyder's inaction, Bing's illness prolong Detroit's woes

DETROIT -- The question mystifies many observers: Why doesn't Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder stop the agony and appoint an emergency manager for Detroit?

Legally, the governor has to do something no later than April 5. As things now stand, the city will run out of cash sometime next month. Apart from its current deficit, the city has $10 billion or more in unfunded long-term liabilities.

The odds of this deeply impoverished city ever successfully dealing with that debt seem impossibly long. Nor has Detroit's leadership stepped up. City officials have failed to make the kind of cuts the governor has said are needed to prevent a state takeover of the city.

Some City Council members refuse to do anything except demand more money from the state.

A complicated mess got even more messy when, at the height of the crisis last week, Mayor Dave Bing suddenly had to have emergency surgery for a perforated intestine.

Doctors said he won't be able to return to his duties for three weeks or so. That left a virtually unknown and unelected aide, chief of staff Kirk Lewis, in charge of trying to negotiate a deal to save the city from bankruptcy or an emergency manager.

Nobody even wanted to think about what would happen if the mayor had to resign. That would make City Council President Charles Pugh acting mayor. Mr. Pugh, a former TV anchorman, is often in the news for his continuing inability to pay his bills.

Recently, he lost his condo to foreclosure. These days, as the city approaches collapse, he is spending time touting his new exercise video and showing off his improved muscles.

"Some say I have a six-pack, others say an eight-pack," he brags, posing shirtless on his Web site.

This week, a special financial review team appointed by the governor declared the city in a state of extreme emergency. When the team held a public meeting in Detroit, a crowd chanting anti-takeover slogans drowned out State Treasurer Andy Dillon.

One person compared the state's efforts to help the city to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Malik Shabazz, a leader of something called the New Black Panther Party, said: "This is white-on-black crime. Before you can take over our city, we will burn it down."

Nobody is suggesting that Mr. Shabazz represents more than a small lunatic fringe. But the threat of civil unrest may be one big reason the governor is reluctant to act.

There is strong evidence that the governor really does want Detroiters to be involved in their own salvation.

Whatever you think of his policies, Mr. Snyder has, throughout the city's financial crisis, frequently behaved like the only adult in the room. Two weeks ago, he proposed a consent agreement that included a nine-person committee, some of whose members would be named by the current Detroit leadership.

City leaders responded to that mostly by attacking the governor, sometimes in highly personal terms. He responded mildly, saying he didn't feel that personal attacks were useful.

"Unfortunately, there has been a lot of history of racial issues and such, and we have to be open and honest about that," he said. But he indicated that time was running out to save the city from collapse.

He has repeatedly said he doesn't want to name an emergency manager, but if there's no other choice, "I will do my fiduciary duty."

Yet he wants cooperation. "There isn't a lot of good reason this wasn't done some time ago," the governor said. "I'm impatient. I think the citizens are impatient. They want action.

"I was hired by the citizens of Detroit and the citizens of Michigan to see they get the best services possible, and have a bright future," he said.

Indeed, Mr. Snyder was hired by citizens of Michigan in a landslide two years ago. But by Detroit, not so much. He got barely 5 percent of its vote.

Nevertheless, he impressed some by braving the ranters to hold a town hall meeting in Detroit this week. By that time, the governor was optimistic some kind of consent agreement could be reached, though he was backing away from calling it that.

Part of the reason he may want to avoid appointing an emergency manager is practical: Opponents of the emergency-manager law have filed petitions to hold a referendum on it in November.

Within weeks, state canvassers are expected to certify those signatures. When they do, the law will be suspended until the November vote. This would throw the authority of any sitting emergency managers into considerable doubt.

If there is anything that everyone agrees on, it is that more confusion, uncertainty, and chaos are the last things Detroit needs.

Both houses of the Michigan Legislature have voted to repeal the state law that requires motorcyclists to wear helmets, despite opposition from public health and insurance groups.

The Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning estimates the repeal would mean 30 more deaths and 127 incapacitating injuries every year, with higher health-care costs for all.

But the liquor lobby strongly supported repealing the helmet law, because they said it would cause bikers to buy more booze in Michigan.

The bill is before Governor Snyder. He says public health is one of his major concerns. If so, does signing this measure make any sense?

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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