Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 17, 2013

George Weeks: Media chatter as Snyder tackles Detroit woes

Syndicated columnist

— During World War II, Detroit was widely known as America’s Arsenal of Democracy. Now it’s increasingly known as a national arena of agony. Moan-town.

As the Wall Street Journal aptly said of Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision to appoint an emergency manager for Detroit:

“The state of Michigan is taking on one of the most difficult turnaround projects ever attempted: a rescue of a sprawling city with $14 billion in debt, a depleted tax base, a legacy of government corruption — and very little time left to avert financial collapse.”

The corruption was underscored by the March 11 conviction of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on 24 charges, including accepting bribes, after a five-month trial. He’s behind bars awaiting sentencing for what could be another 20 years or so.

While CNN and some others nationally essentially reported the development with little political spin, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow called the appointment of highly credentialed emergency manager Kevyn Orr, a bankruptcy attorney and turnaround expert, a “Republican takeover of Michigan’s largest city.”

Nonsense. Orr is a self-declared Democrat who worked on the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Barack Obama. More to the point, Snyder is doing what governors before him likely would do under the circumstances as declared by assorted evaluations of the need.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, in pledging cooperation after earlier reservations, told his embattled city: “We must stop fighting each other.” Wise words.

Newly-elected Democratic State Chairman Lon Johnson said: “Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Lansing Republicans have deliberately starved our communities of billions in revenue, while giving corporate special interests a huge tax break. Snyder and Lansing Republicans are forcing an unnecessary, hostile takeover as a solution to the problem that they themselves created. Meanwhile the democratic rights of Detroit’s citizens are being trampled to protect the interests of Snyder’s wealthy CEO friends and their lobbyists.”

Johnson said, “Let’s not forget that a mere six months ago the voters of Michigan tossed out the emergency manager law, only to have Lansing Republicans re-enact it during lame duck.

“It’s not just Detroit voters who are being snubbed with this move; it’s every Michigan voter that showed up on Election Day and rejected the emergency manager law.“Kevyn Orr may have an impeccable corporate background, but if Rick Snyder wants him to run Detroit, he should move to Detroit and run for mayor.”

Detroit, and other large cities such as Flint and Pontiac that have also have been assigned emergency managers, are not unique among Michigan communities that have had special attention from the state on its list of counties and cities on the “state financial watch list.”

According to the most recent information posted on the Michigan Department of Treasury’s Fiscal Indicator Scores web page, three northern counties — Alger, Alpena and Lake — “bear watching,” having drawn scores of 5 or higher on the department’s “10-point stress scale.”

As I watched the March 14 Snyder-Orr announcement on my computer I was impressed with the Orr and agreed with the subsequent Detroit News editorial that said he “exuded confidence and competence…presenting himself as a man who will move with urgency in turning around the city.”

But, alas, on Saturday the same newspaper, which earlier disclosed that about half of Detroiters have not paid their property taxes, revealed: “The man charged with fixing Detroit’s faltering finances has been hit with four liens in four years from the state of Maryland for unpaid taxes, records show.”

The News said Orr has two outstanding liens on his $1 million home in Chevy Chase, Md., for $16,000 in unemployment taxes in 2010 and 2011.

Orr said he was unaware of liens, and Snyder’s office said he would pay “in full ASAP.”

Emergency manager media chatter has only just begun.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.