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Orr, what? Detroit EM’s first days show more loyalty to state than city

Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, started his job with mixed reviews. Some thought he was a necessary evil or a saving grace for Detroit, while others felt he represented the demise of democracy and the voice of voters. Either way, his presence represented the potential for change for a city hanging by a noose long mistaken for a thread.

Yet, in his first report, Orr said nothing new. The city is broke, and broken. For anyone who paid even the slightest bit of attention to what has been happening in Detroit for decades, his “findings” were an insult. Administration after administration had been kicking the proverbial can, putting off making otherwise unsustainable structural changes. The changes proposed in his report mirrored the recommendations long touted by Mayor Dave Bing. Orr even goes so far as to casually claim at least two of Bing’s accomplishments – keeping parks and recreation centers open and new vehicles for police and EMS – as his own.

The City of Detroit has had reviews, analyses and reports for years that identified the financial and structural crises of the city. Long missing have been plans and a means of executing necessary decisions to fix them without pushback from entities whose personal interests superseded those of the greater good.

On one hand, Orr represented the opportunity to do just that.  For all practical purposes, he had a roadmap from Mayor Bing, a newly appointed CFO, a program manager touted for his financial experience and a state-appointed Financial Advisory Board. Public safety and core city services, such as lighting, were deemed priorities. Even some unions had already committed to concessions. Yet, it seems that there are other precedent-taking interests in his decision-making: the state.

Decisions and moves that were supposed to help Detroit are now taking on a different appearance. The questionable involvement of Orr’s former firm; the addition of several other state-dictated contracts – on the city’s dime – and decisions such as the selection of a police chief fall outside of the realm of emergency financial responsibilities.

The pledged partnership between the state and city appears to be anything but. The state’s back-door legislation to put an EM in Detroit, followed by their chameleon moves on the SEMCOG deal, and the insertion of Orr into things he really should otherwise stay out of doesn’t do anything to quell the critics who opposed his presence.

The latest turn was his decision to not attend the Mackinac Public Policy Conference. As the key decision maker for the State’s largest city, why wouldn’t he be there?

Change is difficult, and especially so for a city who many still believe can make improvements on its own. The presence of an EM, while not embraced by everyone, could have truly been a tough pill to swallow, but one that brought about the remedy long needed. Yet, at this rate, the expectations are not looking good.

As a bankruptcy attorney, many expect Orr to move in that direction at the expense of city assets and even a few of the city’s major bondholders who, by the way, are clients of Orr’s former firm.

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