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Commentary: Detroit’s Self-inflicted Agony


Two months ago, Detroit City Council agreed, at the last possible moment, to enter into a consent agreement with the state.

The city was fast running out of cash, and was facing a situation where the governor would virtually have been forced to appoint an emergency manager to run the city.

But City Council finally voted five to four to enter into a consent agreement instead. Instead of local officials effectively losing all their power, which is what happens when an emergency manager is named, there was to be a power-sharing agreement between the state and the city. The agreement called for the appointment of a chief financial officer, a program manager, and a financial advisory board to oversee city spending and economic decisions.

Something had to be done. Besides being about to run out of cash, the city was running an immense budget deficit and has something like twelve billion dollars in unfunded, long-term liabilities.

We are talking, mind you, about a desperately poor city with less than seven hundred thousand people. Unemployment is rampant and fewer than half the adults are even in the labor force.

The chances of the city being able to fix its own problems were zero. In return for signing on to the consent agreement, the city was allowed to borrow more than a hundred million dollars to pay its basic bills until the new system was in place.

Well, things seem to have gone from bad to worse. Long after the deadline has passed, Detroit’s famously dysfunctional City Council still has failed to name its two members to the financial advisory board. The mayor has still not hired a program manager.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the city’s top attorney, corporation counsel Krystal Crittendon, seems determined to sabotage everything. Last month she declared the city could not enter into the consent agreement because the state of Michigan was in default on debts it owed the city. Mainly, revenue sharing money that was cut and a water bill that’s in dispute. State officials said this was nonsense. But now Crittendon has turned up the pressure by filing an expanded lawsuit against the state. Among other things, she says the consent agreement is void because the state owes Detroit a few hundred dollars in parking tickets.

What’s going on here? And who, you might ask, is Krystal Crittendon? Well, she is a lawyer who has worked for the city since she got out of law school eighteen years ago. She got the top job almost by default three years ago, in a chaotic time when the city had an interim mayor and her predecessor was fired for an ethnic slur.

Thanks to a change in the city charter, it is now almost impossible to fire her. But ironically, the more she succeeds in stalling the consent agreement, the more likely it is that the city will get an emergency manager instead. It would be terribly ironic if those Detroiters fighting the loss of control a consent agreement means end up causing themselves to lose total control instead.

If I knew Ms. Crittendon personally, I might tell her what my mommy told me a lifetime ago. Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

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