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Published: Friday, 7/4/2014

COMMENTARY

As election nears, Michigan’s biggest county faces fiscal abyss

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Lessenberry Lessenberry
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DETROIT — Few people outside the Detroit area normally know or care who the Wayne County executive — a sort of county mayor — is. But this year, that choice may be important to the wallets of everyone in Michigan.

Wayne County, by far the state’s largest in population, is in trouble, largely because of appalling mismanagement. The county has been rocked by scandal after scandal, blowing more than $125 million on a new jail that never will be built.

County Executive Robert Ficano’s administration also has squandered millions of dollars on bad investments and astronomical payouts to political appointees.

Things have gotten so bad that there is talk of a possible emergency manager for Wayne County. Detroit, which has nearly 40 percent of the county’s 1.8 million residents, already has an emergency manager and is in bankruptcy.

Warren Evans, who polls say is the clear front-runner in the race for county executive, says putting Wayne County under emergency management would be more difficult that anyone realizes.

“The county prosecutor [and] the sheriff, are elected independently,” he said. “They have their own budgets. They wouldn’t come under the emergency manager’s authority.”

Mr. Evans managed a $150 million budget when he was county sheriff. At 65, he has spent most of his career in law enforcement. He won high marks for reducing violent crime while staying within spending targets.

His record, however, has a blemish. Five years ago, he impressed many people by voluntarily giving up his elected post as county sheriff to serve as Detroit police chief under Mayor Dave Bing. Within barely a year, however, he was fired.

Police who were looking for a murderer in May, 2010, raided a Detroit home and accidentally shot and killed 7-year-old Aiyana Jones. Worse, police had allowed a crew from a TV reality show to tag alone and film the raid.

That led to cries that Mr. Evans had “gone Hollywood.” It also was learned that Mr. Evans, waving a rifle, was featured on a promotion of a different reality show.

Whether this was a matter of bad judgment or bad timing isn’t clear, but these incidents cost him his job. “I got a raw deal,” Mr. Evans said. “But a real leader doesn’t blame others — he falls on his sword.”

What rankled him more was Mayor Bing citing his then-dating relationship with a female police lieutenant as another factor in his firing. “We were both single,” Mr. Evans said. “We were both open about it, it violated no policies, and we even socialized with the mayor.”

The couple is no longer together. Mr. Evans says he is much more concerned about Wayne County’s future. He argues that he is the only candidate with the administrative experience to do the job. He notes that public safety is an enormous factor in getting people to live anywhere.

“And most of what I’ve done recently is successfully manage complex programs and budgets,” Mr. Evans said, “which is what this job [county executive] is mainly about.”

Wayne County’s next executive will be chosen formally in November. But the winner, for all practical purposes, will be determined by the Aug. 5 Democratic primary.

The discredited Mr. Ficano is seeking re-election. “I do got a plan that I got done — I was able to bring fiscal responsibility to the county,” Mr. Ficano told an audience in June, not bothering to mention that the state had rejected his plan. Most polls show him running last.

Other notable candidates include County Commissioner Kevin McNamara, whose late father, Ed, was county executive before Mr. Ficano; Democratic state Rep. Phil Cavanagh, a former county commissioner and son of a famous former Detroit mayor, and William Wild, the mayor of Westland. Mr. Wild has the support and financial backing of many leaders of Detroit’s business community, which make some people suspect he is a closet Republican.

Mr. Evans has two major advantages: He is the only African-American in a race where black voters may account for half the electorate, and he is by far the best known.

What will he do if he wins? First of all, “call for an immediate forensic audit of everything in the county,” he said.

Next, he pledges total transparency, “posting everything, every transaction, on the Internet. Then I’d sit down with all 43 governments in Wayne County and ask: ‘What can I do to help you?”

The former sheriff knows regional consolidation is essential to the county’s future, though he is enough of a practical politician not to suggest specifics yet. He wants the county to serve as a central purchaser, to save money through economies of scale.

Financially, Mr. Evans doesn’t need this job. He has a good pension, and has made enough money practicing law and consulting to allow him to build a Western saddle horse business in South Carolina.

But he says he has “a passion for improving the lives of others. Every need, every challenge that the county faces mirrors the tasks I’ve faced as a manager in other positions. I am the best person to get the job done.”

If he wins, Wayne County’s future may hinge on his being right.

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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