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Commentary: Detroit, now what?


A week ago, it seemed possible that Detroit could be only days away from an Emergency Manager and bankruptcy. The city’s top lawyer had defied the mayor’s wishes and filed a lawsuit to stop the carefully crafted consent agreement designed to allow city and state officials to share power.

If her suit had dragged on, the city would quickly have run out of cash. But it was speedily thrown out of court, and with that, the consent agreement saved, just in the nick of time.

Within two days, the city council had named their two members to the financial advisory board, the key position of program manager was filled, and the board then met for the first time.

But what happens next? The hard part. The city still has a vast current budget deficit and unfunded, long-term obligations of something over $10 billion. Detroit is still hemorrhaging people, and those left are disproportionately poor and unskilled. How does it get out of the short-term mess and begin to address the long-term problem?

The other day, I had a long conversation with a woman whose intelligence and judgment I respect, and who has tremendous knowledge of Detroit. Shiela Cockrel was born into a Irish family in Detroit’s Corktown area in 1947.

Almost from the start, she cared about social justice. She was involved in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, and defied her parents to help people injured in the Detroit riots. She worked with and then married Ken Cockrel, a crusading African-American attorney and city council member. The couple were deeply committed to Detroit, and polls showed her husband, Ken, could have been elected mayor in 1989.

But that spring, at age 50, he dropped dead on the kitchen floor. Shiela raised their daughter, worked for the city, and then was elected to four terms on Detroit City Council, where she chaired he budget committee. Three years ago, frustrated with the inability to get anything done, she declined to run for reelection. She now teaches at Wayne State and tries to build democracy through a series of “Citizen Detroit” forums.

But she keeps her fingers on the city’s pulse. She isn’t especially optimistic about the consent agreement. And she told me people seeking to reform city government aren’t looking deeply enough. For example, laying people off by seniority, and allowing workers to “bump” into a complex department where they know nothing makes little sense.

When I mentioned that laying off police didn’t seem to make sense when crime was a major problem, she said, “Well, we really don’t know if we have enough police to do that job. We have to start by looking at what they really do and how they do their jobs.”

Essentially, she believes, Detroit needs the organizational equivalent of zero-based budgeting. Her overall take is that the political culture has to be changed to catch up with what Detroiters really want. Nobody under age 40, she said, has ever known the city when it wasn’t in sad shape. Today’s young adults aren’t very much interested in the battles of the past. “They want the city fixed,” she told me. “They want the city run properly, period.”

If that’s the case, that’s an excellent place to start.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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