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plans and a means of executing necessary decisions to fix them without pushback from entities whose personal interests superseded those of the greater good.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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Sun, 05/26/2013 - 10:47am
What " LOYALITY " did the citizens / Administration(s) show to the State of Michigan by PIZZING ALL their $$$$$ away???????
Sun, 05/26/2013 - 10:57am
If you start with a premise, you are likely to get the answer you thought. Disappointing that some Detroiters continue to think that someone 'the state or the citizens of MI" owe them something. Sad that such narrowmindedness continues in what once was a vibrant great American city.
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 3:17pm
How about "fairness?" While Detroit and its politicians share much of the blame, the state did promise increased revenue sharing if the city reduced its income tax. Detroit followed through, the state ...? Pffft, nothing.
Dan Hunter
Mon, 05/27/2013 - 6:23am
First, her article ends with this little tidbit of information: "Karen Dumas is a PR/communications strategist and former chief of communications for the city of Detroit. A native Detroiter, she leads her own firm, Images & Ideas, Inc. She spends brunch hours with a cup of tea, planning the week ahead." Really? She does her planning at brunch while enjoying a brisk cup of tea. How quaint? Again we hear someone criticize that he spent his first weeks putting together a financial picture of the city. Any consultant is going to plan their actions around the numbers and Detroit civic government was famous for reporting false numbers. Only an irresponsible E.M. would barge ahead not knowing the depth and breadth of the problem, only to find later that his assumptions were wrong and his actions insufficient or too draconian. Orr also absolutely has the right to name the new police chief. In fact, he can send both the Mayor and the Council packing if he wants to. The current administration was going to hire another insider as Police Chief, and the result would be more of the same. When you are planning to make extensive changes, you bring in a change agent and it appears that he made a strong choice. Police and Fire make up half the city budget and an assault is needed on the union work rules to get the workforce on the beat where they belong. Regarding the Mackinac Conference, that is a 'damned if you do and damned if you don't' choice. If he went to the conference, Dumas would be writing about how he is on a boondoggle when he should be working. I'm not concerned or overly encouraged by Orr's actions thus far. He is doing what he is supposed to be doing, and it appears he is an exceptionally bright man. It won't be until he gets to the heavy hitters that we will be able to judge his performance. Those significant events include negotiations with the unions and creditors, outsourcing and the possible sale of assets. There may even be a surprise or two in store. Seems that Ms. Dumas can't wait to pile on. Must be all that caffeine while refreshing herself with a spot of tea at brunch.
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 10:04am
Dan Hunter is right: The new Emergency Manager law (PA 436) gives Kevyn Orr near-absolute power. He can name a new Police Chief, and Mayor Bing and City Council continue to serve and draw pay only because he ALLOWS it. That said, Mr. Orr has not availed himself of many opportunities to win over the public or gain key outside support to start to fix the many issues he found in his initial public filing. Ms. Dumas is quite right in that Mr. Orr's findings are neither new nor surprising...but the language he used gave the appearance that municipal bankruptcy has been quietly put on the table. Perhaps it's because Mr. Orr is a bankruptcy specialist and such language comes naturally to him. I would hope that's the case, and that when he starts making tough decisions over the remaining 16 months of his tenure he takes no further steps down that potentially devastating road.
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 1:03pm
What a biased column by Ms. Dumas. She seems to hold up Mr. Bing as some kind of hero or savior. While Mr. Bing was successful as a business owner, and by all accounts is a nice fellow, he was quite a failure as a mayor. He talked boldly, but acted weakly. He did not get enough reduction in pay and benefits from the unions. He did nothing to change the huge pension obligations the city has. He did not act enough to get the overdue taxes from delinquent property owners. He was completely unsuccessful in getting the rogue city council members to see the realities facing them. Mr. Orr is going to be tough, that's for sure. But it may be too late for even him to save Detroit from bankruptcy. Look at the California cities to see what bankruptcy does to a municipality. Detroit is many times the size of Stockton, CA, and its pain will be many times as great. If Ms. Dumas is sad about the state of Detroit now, wait until bankruptcy......she will see the end result of years of Detroiters' (elected officials AND voters) mismanagement and incompetence.
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 3:32pm
If it was only the politicians in Detroit that were to blame. But the crisis has many mothers. The state has long punished Detroit in spite and out of politics, it was only last year that the Legislature passed a bill authorizing a mass-transportation authority, this after a 40, yes, 40 year effort. While ever major metropolis in the Unites States has had a coordinated effort in transportation, Detroit has been left out and punished mostly because the residents vote overwhelmingly Democratic. And Republicans wonder why Detroiters hate them and never for for their ticket. The state has been slow to allocate money to maintain its share of infrastructure in Detroit. In the last 32 years, the GOP has been able to stop any legislation and has in an effort to "punish" Michigan citizens that happen to live in Detroit. GOP policies have succeed in turning this one vibrant city into a waste land. Congratulations.
Thu, 05/30/2013 - 1:20pm
It is naive to think Orr was going to come to Detroit and find a magic potion. Historically, the problem has been more of implementation. The Mayor and Council did nothing about the problems. Further, it appears the problems may have been understated. The first step was for him to verify what the problems really are. He has done that. Now he is in position to develop and implement a valid and viable plan; not only for the short-run but also the long run. I suspect the Press is upset with him because he is sticking to the knitting and not causing waives in the media. His job is not to keep the press happy, but rather to negotiate in good faith with all the stakeholders to find a solution. Respect that and let him do his job. Regarding the issue of who is he working for, I assume the objectives of both the state and city are one and the same.... http://goo.gl/fZ39J