Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

April 12, 2012

Op-Ed: Culture trumps common sense

Oddly, the first question the politicians asked after the Detroit City Council finally voted to approve the consent agreement with the State of Michigan was not "will it work" but ... "who won?" Short Answer No. 1: Too early to tell.

Short Answer No. 2: Wrong question.

Third Answer, a little longer: Sadly, in most cases, political culture trumps common sense and any willingness to collaborate.

One Lansing insider told me he was calling the deal between Detroit and the state "consent agreement lite." (Others said that a consent agreement would be "Emergency Manager lite.") Indeed, both Gov. Rick Snyder and State Treasurer Andy Dillon talked about their aim to work out "the lightest possible touch" on the city and their joint interest in avoiding the much-dreaded emergency manager.

Nobody doubts for a moment that this is so. But under the consent agreement as written, there is an awful lot of diffusion of power. The Governor, the Mayor, the City Council and the State Treasurer are all entitled to have their hands in the pot.

So are three powerful positions yet to be created — the Chief Financial Officer, the Program Manager and a nine-member Financial Advisory Board. But while the governor may have a slightly stronger hand than anyone else, no one person is in charge of the controls.

Which brings us to Detroit's political culture. To be sure, a lot of the fierce rhetoric leading up to the agreement was political grandstanding. But apart from that, the long record of bad blood between Mayor Dave Bing and the Council doesn't encourage optimism that reaching agreement on anything will be easy.

When you add the racial politics that have pervaded the relationships between Detroit, the suburbs and the state for decades, you have to worry this whole thing could come apart at the seams.

That's not being alarmist. Consider these potential flashpoints of friction yet to be worked out as part of the Consent Agreement.

• Appointments: Detroit has a week to create Chief Financial Officer and Program Manager positions. Within 30 days, the Mayor must make appointments from two lists of three names, each selected jointly by the Mayor and State Treasurer.

• Public Act 4: The Act allows the Governor to impose an Emergency Manager on the city. Nobody wanted that. So for everybody, a Consent Agreement was better than an Emergency Manager. But without the threat of an Emergency Manager, no Consent Agreement. Yet in a new wrinkle, it now looks very likely that enough signatures will be certified to put repeal of the act on the November ballot. The second that happens, the law is suspended till after the vote. No hammer, no agreement?

• Unions: The consent agreement calls for city employee unions to agree by July 16 to concessions on pay, benefits, bumping rights and work rules that go beyond those they negotiated last month with the city. The unions are furious, to put it mildly.

• Revenue projections: Detroit's future budgets must dovetail with independent revenue projections. Forecasting revenue is a tricky business, and for everybody to agree on such forecasts seems unlikely.

What is clear is that everybody — including Detroit officials willing to be quoted — agrees that restructuring the city is going to take a very long time. Pervasive illiteracy and poor skills mean that only half of Detroit's adults are even in the labor market at all — the lowest rate of any major city in the nation. Curing those problems won't happen overnight, especially with the Detroit Public Schools in such a mess.

When you combine a combative political culture, racial politics and terrible economic problems, you get a highly combustible mix. Frankly, I fear the most optimistic prospect is for years of quarrelling. Any progress will be herky-jerky at best.

Critics and protesters against the Consent Agreement decried the loss of "democracy." Fair enough. But, as anybody who looks at the hostile gridlock in Washington can see, democracy alone, all too often, isn't a good way to get things done.

So, back to the questions at the top of this column:

1) Nobody won, which is probably the best outcome possible.

2) Asking who won is the wrong question; the right one is how a structure with very diffuse decision-making can be made to work.

3) And finally, and sadly, political culture tends to trump almost everything, including everybody's very good intentions.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.

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