Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

April 1, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Is Snyder only adult in Detroit?

The mystifying question for many outside observers: Why doesn't Gov. Rick Snyder just stop the endless agony and appoint an emergency manager for Detroit?

Legally, the governor has to do something no later than Thursday. As things now stand, the city will run out of cash completely sometime next month. Apart from the 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 seem impossibly long. Nor has the city 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 stubbornly refuse to do anything except bizarrely demand more money from the state.

A complicated mess got even more messy when, at the height of the crisis, 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. Pugh, a former TV anchorman, is often in the news for failing to pay his bills.

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

"Some say I have a six-pack. Others say an eight pack," he proudly brags, posing shirtless on his website.

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

One bizarrely compared the state efforts to help the city to the killing 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 Shabazz is representative of more than a small lunatic fringe. But threat of civil unrest may be one big reason the governor is reluctant to act.

But apart from that, there is strong evidence that the governor really does want Detroiters to be involved in their own salvation.

Whatever you think of his policies, Snyder has, throughout the city's financial crisis, frequently behaved like the only adult in the room. Two weeks ago, he suggested a proposed "consent agreement," under 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, by saying he didn't feel that personal attacks were very useful.

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

He has said over and over he doesn't want to name an emergency manager, but said 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. I'm impatient. I think the citizens are impatient. They want action," the governor said.

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

Indeed, Snyder "was hired" by the citizens of Michigan in a landslide two years ago. But by Detroit, not so much. Though he campaigned in the city, he got barely 5 percent of its vote. Nevertheless, he impressed some by braving the ranters to hold a town hall meeting in Detroit on Wednesday.

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 an emergency manager is practical: Those opposed to the emergency manager law have filed petitions to hold a referendum on it this 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.

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