Sometimes, it has to seem that if cities can have karma, Detroit clearly has a lot. All of it bad.
The city once again became a national laughingstock last week when George Cushingberry, the newly elected council president pro tem, nearly hit two policemen while driving a vehicle strongly smelling of marijuana and with an open rum bottle on the floor.
That came the day after city council ousted that body’s brightest light, and chose as its new president a woman who spent most of the last two years voting with those determined to obstruct reform.
Sad enough. But what few may realize is that these events could help result in Detroit remaining under state control … for years.
More on this shortly. But first, less than two weeks ago, things finally seemed to be looking up for the Motor City. The citizens, the vast majority of whom are black, ignored appeals to race last November and elected a can-do politician who happens to be white: Mike Duggan, a guy with a reputation for fixing broken systems, getting things done, and balancing the books.
A new city council was elected, with two out of the worst three naysayers gone. Saunteel Jenkins, the bright, savvy council president, was expected to win a four-year term in the job.
The hope was that by September the books would be balanced; the bankruptcy over, billions in debt eliminated, and the elected mayor and council again fully in charge of the city’s destiny.
Then, once again, the city’s politicians sabotaged themselves. On Monday, the new council voted, 5-4, to replace Jenkins with Brenda Jones, a former union local president starting her third term. For most of the past two years, the 53-year-old Jones has consistently voted to try to thwart any rational change.
She voted against the consent agreement was designed to try to keep the city from falling under an emergency manager. She opposed virtually every economic reform, and seemed unwilling to accept the seriousness of Detroit’s financial crisis.
When Mayor Dave Bing proposed accepting a deal whereby the state would pour millions into fixing up Belle Isle, the city’s island park, she opposed that. Last summer, she even refused to vote to select a new city council president, after the old one left town amid allegations of sex videos and a teenaged boy.
Besides selecting Jones as council president, a behind-the-scenes political deal was made under which Cushingberry was made council president pro tem. “Cush,” an off-again, on-again state legislator since 1975, also got some plum committee assignments.
That wasn’t enough for him, however: The next day he tried to do an end run and get the body to vote on contracts he wanted approved without having the committees vet them first.
That was too much even for Jones, and it was turned down. That night, Cushingberry had his altercation with the police. He later claimed he was just a victim of racial profiling.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig took pains to deny that, and dryly noted that neither of the two officers involved is white. While there a police investigation under way, the chief seemed to indicate it is focusing on why the police supervisor told the officers to let the councilman go, instead of checking his sobriety and arresting him.
While all this is more embarrassment for a city that has had more than its share of scandal, it may also have far deeper consequences. Under Michigan law, Detroit City Council can dismiss Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr by the end of September, if they have six votes to do so. Orr himself has said he expects to be gone.
Then, most now assume, local control will be restored.
But maybe not. The governor could still find that a state of emergency exists in the city. Something could happen very much like what is going on in Pontiac, less than an hour north of Detroit.
There, the city’s last emergency manager left last August. But the city is still far from independent. It is now being run by a state-appointed city administrator and a “transition advisory board.”
Pontiac’s council president told the Detroit Free Press “we are still in handcuffs here, and we have no idea when it’s going to end.”
There may be even more temptation for state officials to impose continuing control on Detroit - especially if they don’t trust those at the wheel. Though Mayor Mike Duggan last week said he looked forward to working with the council’s new leaders after they were selected, it is hard to believe he really means it.
Once he is fully in charge, the mayor will, after all, have to ask council to approve some tough budgets. Duggan has been in politics for a long time. It is hard to think that he - or Lansing - is optimistic about the rationality of this council’s leadership.
Plus, not a single council veteran, including Saunteel Jenkins, is on either of the two key committees - budget and planning and development. They are all staffed by newcomers, all but one of whom supported the Jones and Cushingberry team.
As a result, don’t hold your breath waiting for Gov. Rick Snyder to eagerly empower this city council. Nor does he have anything to lose politically; four years ago, 95 percent of Detroiters voted against him. Don’t be surprised if, nine months from now, Mayor Duggan has been given something like emergency manager powers.
If so, Detroit City Council may have mainly itself to blame.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an 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.