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Published: Friday, 11/30/2012

Detroit’s woes bring dismay even to an optimist

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT — Glenda Price is the type of person Detroit needs. A Philadelphia native and a former scientist turned university administrator, she arrived in 1998 to become the president of Marygrove College, a small, struggling liberal arts school here.

Within a few years, she had turned the school’s bleak finances around, partly by setting up an innovative distance-learning program.

When she retired six years ago, she thought about returning to Philadelphia, or to Atlanta, where she had worked for many years.

“But I realized that everything I was looking for in life was right here,” she told me. She is now running the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, raising money to help the state‘s most troubled school district. This year, she was appointed to the financial advisory board that aims to help the City of Detroit avoid a state takeover or federal bankruptcy court.

At age 73, Ms. Price is a natural optimist who says: “I see so many wonderful opportunities ahead of us — that’s the way I look at life.”

But this week, even she was fed up with the antics of the politicians who are running, or failing to run, Michigan’s largest city, which now seems more certain than ever to topple into bankruptcy.

“Dismay is far too mild a term,” she said, choosing her words carefully. Others used terms that were more harsh. If anyone had any lingering doubts that the “consent agreement” designed to save Detroit isn’t working, they should be effectively laid to rest.

Last week, with the city just weeks from running out of cash, Mayor Dave Bing called an emergency meeting of City Council members to try to get them to approve a consulting contract with a law firm.

Under the terms of the consent agreement, such a contract is required before the state releases $30 million from a special bond issue to keep the city functioning.

However, the mayor didn’t show up for his own meeting, citing a family matter. The council needed to approve the $300,000 contract before the state would release the money Detroit needs to meet its mid-December payroll.

Despite the city’s desperate state, it was clear that council was set to vote against the deal. Some council members don’t like the fact that the Miller Canfield law firm had a hand in writing the consent agreement itself, as well as the tough emergency manager law Michigan voters narrowly repealed on Election Day.

Maybe. But the bigger reason may be that many council members loathe Mayor Bing. For his part, the mayor openly holds council in contempt, and seems to have virtually abandoned attempts to work with it.

In fairness, it is hard to see how anyone could avoid becoming exasperated with most of the nine council members, who seem neither to grasp economic reality nor to care about it.

A majority of council seems determined to block anything, even when it is clearly in the city’s best interests.

When the state offered to take over Belle Isle and run it as a state park, council indignantly rejected the idea, even though the city doesn’t have the money to do even minimal maintenance on what was once one of the city’s most beautiful jewels.

Council refused a contract to reform the city’s troubled Water and Sewerage Department. Some of the equipment is so old that replacement parts are no longer available. A previous director recently pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

Last week, council members refused to let philanthropic financier John Hantz buy vacant land and beautify Detroit’s rundown east side with a tree farm. Nor did council members seem concerned that city workers might not get paid if they didn‘t approve the law firm contract.

In one more Three Stooges moment, the vote was never taken. The city law department suddenly announced the meeting apparently was illegal under Michigan‘s Open Meetings Act. It seems city officials didn’t post required notices of the meeting within the government center until after the building was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The department is led by Krystal Crittendon, the corporation counsel. Unlike most lawyers in her position, she ignores the mayor’s wishes.

She also has spent much of her time filing lawsuits trying to overturn the consent agreement, which she thinks is illegal.

The mayor has tried repeatedly to fire her, but that also has been blocked by council.

“The biggest mystery surrounding Detroit’s imminent financial collapse isn’t whether or how exactly it will go bankrupt,” Detroit News business columnist Daniel Howes wrote this week.

“It’s when, and how steep a price will be paid by city residents, employees, retirees, and business leaders.”

No city Detroit’s size has ever gone through federal bankruptcy. Analysts say the experience could easily have negative effects statewide, on Michigan’s image, and its bond rating.

There is still a way bankruptcy could be avoided — a new emergency manager law. Last spring, a member of the financial advisory board, former Wayne State University president Irvin Reid, thought Gov. Rick Snyder should have moved then to impose a powerful emergency manager on Detroit.

Ms. Price favored the consent agreement “as a transitional phase.” But now, she’d be ready for an emergency manager, “if we can get legislation that would give the needed authority.”

What’s clear to everyone is that Detroit, as things now stand, can’t go on much longer. Whatever happens will affect everyone in Michigan, possibly in more ways than anyone knows.

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.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com


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