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Commentary: Watching for progress in Detroit


If I were the late Andy Rooney, I might start today by asking whether you see your glass as half full -- or half empty?

Meaning -- do you focus on the positive or the negative? On the other hand, there’s an old joke about the difference between an optimist, a pessimist, and a Detroiter. The optimist sees the glass as half full; the pessimist, as half empty.

The Detroiter wants to know, “who stole my glass?”  Well, there’s more than a little truth in that story. Detroit has been running on empty for a long time, drinking out of glasses that have been borrowed from future generations, then lost forever.

Right now, there‘s a massive effort being made to save the city from bankruptcy or an emergency manager. Two weeks ago, the city and state narrowly agreed on a so-called consent agreement designed to prevent either of those things from happening.

Since then, I have talked to perhaps a dozen well-placed and well-connected sources in government and business, asking them off the record if they thought the consent agreement could work.

None of them thought it would. Yesterday, we finally learned the identities of the first three members of the financial advisory board that is supposed to guide the city through this process.

They are all first-rate names. Former state treasurer Bob Bowman, Darrell Burks, a top-ranking accountant and Ken Whipple, chairman of the board of a top executive search firm.

But there are six more names to come, most of whom will be named by the mayor and city council. The mayor was supposed to have created two new positions, chief financial officer and chief program officer, within a week, but city council can’t agree on their pay. Meanwhile, Mayor Bing, or his administration, submitted a new crisis budget that is entirely lacking in vision or imagination.

Its worst feature is massive cuts to the Department of Elections, which if approved would leave city clerk Janice Winfrey without adequate money to conduct business in general and this November’s general election in particular. Winfrey has been one of the brightest lights in city government, ever since she upset a notoriously incompetent  predecessor seven years ago. But ruining her ability to do her job is the last thing the city needs, and can only add to the rampant conspiracy theories that this is all a plot to disenfranchise black voters.

Detroit has no more than seven hundred thousand people left, including an adult population half of whom are no longer in the work force. The city has a yawning deficit and is perhaps twelve billion dollars in debt. Frankly, I can’t see how the city can avoid an emergency manager, bankruptcy or, more likely, both.

But we have to wait for all this to play out, while the Ficano administration in surrounding Wayne County tries to survive the worst series of scandals Michigan’s largest county has ever known.

Sometimes, however, you have to laugh to avoid crying, and the state legislature this week did give us something to think about.

Both houses voted overwhelmingly to allow the general public to carry Tasers, which I guess is supposed to make us feel safe.

I just can’t wait till Detroit city officials get theirs.  

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