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Thursday, April 17, 2014
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Published: 1/17/2014

COMMENTARY

Detroit council takes wrong turns on the highway to help

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Jack Lessenberry Jack Lessenberry
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DETROIT — Sometimes, it has to seem that if cities can have karma, Detroit clearly has a lot.

All of it bad.

The city once again became a national laughingstock last week. George Cushingberry, the newly elected city council president pro tem, nearly hit two policemen while driving a vehicle that strongly smelled of marijuana and had an open rum bottle on the floor.

That came the day after city council ousted that body’s brightest light, and chose as its new president a woman who spent most of the last two years voting with those determined to obstruct reform.

Sad enough. But what few may realize is that these events could help result in Detroit remaining under state control — for years.

Less than two weeks ago, things finally seemed to be looking up for the Motor City. Residents, most of whom are black, elected a can-do politician who is white: Mike Duggan, a guy with a reputation for fixing broken systems, getting things done, and balancing the books.

A new city council was elected, with two out of the three worst naysayers gone. Saunteel Jenkins, the bright, savvy council president, was expected to win a four-year term in the job.

The hope was that by September, the books would be balanced, the bankruptcy over, billions of dollars in debt eliminated, and the elected mayor and council again fully in charge of Detroit’s destiny.

Then, once again, the city’s politicians sabotaged themselves. The new council voted, 5-4, to replace Ms. Jenkins with Brenda Jones, a former union local president starting her third term. For most of the past two years, the 53-year-old Ms. Jones consistently has voted to try to thwart any rational change.

She voted against the consent agreement that was designed to try to keep the city from falling under an emergency manager. She opposed virtually every economic reform, and seemed unwilling to accept the seriousness of Detroit’s financial crisis.

When then-Mayor Dave Bing proposed accepting a deal in which Michigan would pour millions of dollars into fixing up Belle Isle, the city’s island park, she opposed that. Last summer, she even refused to vote to select a new city council president, after the old one left town.

Besides selecting Ms. Jones as council president, a behind-the-scenes political deal was made in which Mr. Cushingberry was made council president pro tem.

Mr. Cushingberry, an off-again, on-again state lawmaker since 1975, also got some plum committee assignments.

That wasn’t enough for him, however: The next day, he tried to do an end run and get the body to vote on contracts he wanted approved without having committees vet them first.

That was too much even for Ms. Jones. Mr. Cushingberry’s plan was turned down. That night, Mr. Cushingberry had his altercation with the police. He later claimed he was a victim of racial profiling.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig took pains to deny that, and dryly noted that neither of the two officers involved is white. Although a police investigation is under way, the chief seemed to indicate it is focusing on why the police supervisor told the officers to let the councilman go instead of checking his sobriety and arresting him.

While all of this is more embarrassment for a city that has had more than its share of scandal, it also may have far deeper consequences. Under Michigan law, Detroit City Council can dismiss Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr by the end of September, if they have six votes to do so. Mr. Orr has said he expects to be gone by then, after which, most Detroit observers assume, local control will be restored.

But maybe not. There may be temptation for Michigan officials to impose continuing control on Detroit — especially if they don’t trust those at the wheel. Though Mayor Duggan last week said he looked forward to working with the council’s new leaders after they were selected, it is hard to believe he really means it.

Once he is fully in charge, Mayor Duggan will have to ask council to approve some tough budgets. Mr. Duggan has been in politics for a long time. It is hard to think that he — or state officials — is optimistic about the rationality of this city council’s leadership.

Plus, not a single council veteran, including Ms. Jenkins, is on either of the two key committees: budget and planning and development. They are staffed by newcomers, all but one of whom supported the Jones and Cushingberry team.

As a result, don’t hold your breath waiting for Governor Snyder to eagerly empower this city council. Nor does he have anything to lose politically; four years ago, 95 percent of Detroit voters cast ballots against him.

Don’t be surprised if nine months from now, Mayor Duggan has been given something like emergency manager powers.

If so, Detroit City Council may have mainly itself to blame.

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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