Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 1, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Detroit, county should combine

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Here’s a radical proposal that just might be worth considering: After the bankruptcy process is over, dissolve the city of Detroit — and the government of surrounding Wayne County.

Then merge the two into a powerful new entity, which would have 1.8 million people and enough prosperity to improve the city and be economically competitive in years to come.

Why do that? Three things seem perfectly clear. First, impoverished Detroit can’t possibly be economically viable, even after the city is freed from the crushing burden of $20 billion in debt.

Wayne County, on the other hand, is a mix of prosperity and blight, but has far more resources than Detroit. But Wayne County government is astonishingly corrupt, and needs to be reinvented.

Detroit’s scandals are well known. But the county’s are actually worse. True, when you say the words “politics and corruption” in Michigan, it is hard to not immediately have an image of Detroit’s former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, pop into your head.

Kilpatrick, is, of course, squatting in a jail cell, awaiting a stiff sentence in federal prison on a wide range of felonies from mail fraud to racketeering. That’s after he did time earlier in state prison for perjury and obstruction of justice.

He badly hurt his city, and cost Detroit millions it had to pay to a police officer wrongly fired for investigating his shenanigans.

However it is clear he did not cost the city nearly as much as the incompetent, crony-ridden, and sometimes criminal regime running Michigan’s largest county. The stories that have surfaced in recent years are so appalling they’d be hard to invent:

n The county’s “economic development director,” a flamboyantly exotic woman named Turkia Awada Mullin, somehow got selected as CEO of Detroit Metropolitan Airport two years ago.

Other candidates had experience running airports (she had none) but a majority of the members of the airport authority were appointed by Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano.

Not only did she get the job, the county gave her a $200,000 “severance payment” for voluntarily leaving one job to go to a higher-paying one. This was at a time when the county was laying off workers. After an avalanche of bad press, she was fired.

However, she sued, and in April, an arbitrator ruled the airport had to pay her $713,328. (The costs will be passed on to anyone who uses the airport.) Mullin, who gave the severance back in an effort to try and keep her job, may also now try to recover it.

n But that is all pocket change compared to the scandal that broke this month, when it was learned that construction was being stopped permanently on a new jail that has already cost county taxpayers $125 million. Cost overruns had gotten so out of control that the county realized they could never afford to finish it.

The Wayne County Building Authority was supposed to oversee the project, but they turned that over to the subcontractors themselves, which is sort of like asking the cat to supervise the canary cage. Those subcontractors, Ghafari Associates and AECOM, approved more than $42 million in overruns before anyone noticed.

Oh, there was supposed to be someone from the county supervising them, but that guy got caught up in the Mullin scandal and was fired … and never replaced.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office and the FBI are reportedly looking into various county activities. But Ficano, the county executive, has resisted demands he resign.

He has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, though a number of his top aides have been indicted, charged or convicted. But when asked about the various scandals, his standard reply has been that he had no idea what his subordinates were doing.

n Finally, the latest Wayne County scandal broke last week, when the county board of canvassers met in what should have been a pro forma session to certify Detroit’s Aug. 6 primary election. That was the contest where a majority of the voters ignored the 14 mayoral candidates on the ballot and instead wrote in the name of former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan.

The second-place finisher, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, trailed far behind. Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey ably handled processing of the votes and counting of the absentees.

However, at the last minute, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett intervened — and proposed throwing out 18,000 absentee votes, almost all of them for Duggan. She had wanted a # mark made by the totals in each precinct, and many places did not do that.

The county canvassers nearly did that, until Mr. Duggan’s forces and attorneys reacted angrily. They then abdicated and sent the issue to Lansing. Chris Thomas, state elections director, indicated that throwing out all those votes would be wrong.

He also said there was no state requirement to use hash marks, and said he was sending a team to Detroit to certify the results. To some extent, this is all a waste of taxpayer money; Duggan and Napoleon will be the two candidates in the general election, no matter who finishes first.

Why would the Wayne County clerk make such a move? Perhaps coincidentally, her brother, Al Garrett, is the local head of AFSCME, the public employees’ union — and one of Benny Napoleon’s biggest and most enthusiastic supporters.

Whatever happens next, neither Wayne County nor Detroit are making Michigan proud these days.

The citizens of both deserve better government and enough of an economic base to possibly make the city, county, and state competitive again. City-county combinations from Nashville to Miami to Indianapolis have worked well in many other states.

Wouldn’t it seem that in Michigan, it might be worth a try?

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.