Combine Detroit, Wayne County into one government

Jack Lessenberry.
Jack Lessenberry.

DETROIT — Here’s a radical proposal that might be worth considering: After the bankruptcy process is over, dissolve the City of Detroit — and the government of surrounding Wayne County.

Then merge the two into a powerful new entity, which would have 1.8 million people and enough prosperity to improve the city and stay economically competitive in years to come.

Why do that? An impoverished Detroit can’t be economically viable, even after the city is freed from the crushing burden of $20 billion in debt.

Wayne County is a mix of prosperity and blight, but has far more resources than Detroit. Yet Wayne County government is astonishingly corrupt and needs to be reinvented.

Detroit’s scandals are well known. But the county’s are worse. True, when you say the words “politics” and “corruption” in Michigan, it is hard not to have an immediate image of Detroit’s former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, pop into your head.

Kilpatrick is squatting in a jail cell, awaiting a stiff sentence in federal prison on a wide range of felonies from mail fraud to racketeering. That’s after he did time earlier in state prison, for perjury and obstruction of justice. He cost Detroit millions of dollars it had to pay to a police officer who was wrongly fired for investigating his shenanigans.

However, it is clear he did not cost the city nearly as much as the incompetent, crony-ridden, and sometimes criminal regime that runs Michigan’s largest county. The stories that have surfaced in recent years are so appalling they’d be hard to invent:

● Wayne County’s “economic development director,” a woman named Turkia Awada Mullin, somehow got selected as chief executive officer of Detroit Metropolitan Airport two years ago.

Other candidates had experience running airports (she had none), but most members of the airport authority were appointed by County Executive Robert Ficano.

Not only did she get the job, the county gave her a $200,000 “severance payment” for voluntarily leaving one job to go to a higher-paying one. This was when the county was laying off workers. After an avalanche of bad press, she was fired from the airport job.

However, she sued, and in April, an arbitrator ruled the airport had to pay her $713,328. The costs will be passed on to anyone who uses the airport. Ms. Mullin, who gave the severance payment back in an effort to try to keep her job, may also now try to recover it.

● But that is pocket change compared to the scandal that broke this month, when it was learned that construction has stopped permanently on a new jail that has already cost county taxpayers $125 million. Cost overruns had gotten so out of control that county officials realized they could never afford to finish it.

The Wayne County Building Authority was supposed to oversee the project, but it turned that responsibility over to the subcontractors, which is like asking the cat to supervise the canary cage. Those subcontractors, Ghafari Associates and AECOM, approved more than $42 million in overruns before anyone noticed.

Someone from the county was supposed to be supervising them. But that guy got caught up in the Mullin scandal and was fired — and never replaced.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and the FBI reportedly are looking into various county activities. But Mr. Ficano, the county executive, has resisted demands that he resign.

He has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing, though a number of his top aides have been indicted, charged, and convicted. But when he is asked about the various scandals, his standard reply has been that he had no idea what his subordinates were doing.

● The latest Wayne County scandal emerged last week, when the county board of canvassers met in what should have been a pro forma session to certify Detroit’s Aug. 6 primary election. Most voters ignored the 14 mayoral candidates on the ballot and instead wrote in the name of Mike Duggan, a former Detroit Medical Center CEO.

The second-place finisher, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, trailed far behind. Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey ably handled processing of votes and counting of absentee ballots.

But at the last minute, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett intervened. She proposed throwing out 18,000 absentee ballots, almost all of them for Mr. Duggan. She had wanted a “#” mark made by the totals in each precinct, and many election officials did not do that.

Mr. Duggan’s forces and attorneys reacted angrily. County canvassers then sent the issue to officials in Lansing. Chris Thomas, the state elections director, indicated that throwing out all those votes would be wrong.

He also said there was no state requirement to use hash marks, and added that he was sending a team to Detroit to certify the results.

To some extent, this is a waste of taxpayer money. Mr. Duggan and Mr. Napoleon will be the two candidates in the general election, no matter who finishes first.

Why would the county clerk make such a move? Perhaps because her brother, Al Garrett, is the local head of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees — one of Mr. Napoleon’s biggest and most enthusiastic supporters.

The residents of Wayne County and Detroit deserve better government and enough of an economic base to make the city, county, and state competitive again.

City-county combinations in Nashville, Miami, and Indianapolis have worked well. Wouldn’t it seem that in Michigan, it might be worth a try?

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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