Detroit leaders display the art of governance

“We happen to be living during a leadership crisis, and a time when few people have faith in elites to govern from the top. We live in a vibrant society that is not being led. We don’t suffer from an abuse of power as much as a nonuse of power.”

- David Brooks, in the New York Times

I don’t know of a more succinct or accurate diagnosis of our present malady than this. Governing is not easy, especially since not governing is as simple as falling down. Governing well takes knowledge, experience, patience and the ability to work with other folks involved in the process.

I’ve been mulling about this ever since I had a long conversation with Congressman John Dingell last week. At 59 years in office, Dingell is simply the longest serving member of Congress in American history.

More to the point, over these years he has built an unrivaled record of national achievement: The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, much of the Affordable Care Act, just to name a few. At home Dingell was instrumental in cleaning up the Rouge River, establishing the first International Wildlife Refuge along the Detroit River and protecting the River Raisin National Battlefield in Monroe County.

We talked about how he did it. “I did my homework,” he began. “I worked day in and day out with my colleagues on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, both Democrats and Republicans. Legislation enacting public policy isn’t just one tough guy imposing his will on the others. It’s the result of working together, of understanding what’s in people’s interest, and recognizing that at the end of the day the art of governance is all about bringing people together. It’s absolutely critical.”

Dingell will retire from the Congress – a body, he points out, whose title means a collective assembly – at the end of this year. Those of us who have been lucky enough to know him recognize that he is truly a giant in his own time. And his personification of the art of governance will be a standard against which future Michigan politicians should be measured.

And to start with, consider what’s going on in the city of Detroit, right at this moment. It now looks as though the city will emerge from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in record time, with its finances restructured and a viable plan for future progress and growth. All this has come about by members of the city’s elite coming together to make Detroit a better place for all.

Consider the cast of characters who have come together in far-sighted leadership and good governance: Newly elected Mayor Mike Duggan. Gov. Rick Snyder. Emergency Financial Manager Keyvn Orr. The entire Detroit City Council, led by President Brenda Jones. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. The mediators, federal judge Gerald Rosen and lawyer Eugene Driker. Much of the Southeast Michigan foundation community. And on and on.

A more diverse group of folks with sharply differing interests could not be imagined.

Yet they’ve all worked together for months and months to bring Michigan’s largest city through the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. Sure, they had disagreements, even fights; the council met behind closed doors for 16 hours last week to hash out the terms and conditions for Keyvn Orr’s departure. But at the end of the day they came together to get things done.

Their work – so much resembling John Dingell’s entire career – represents a collaborative use of power in governing that stands in sharp contrast to the far more common and widespread nonuse of power. And it’s a demonstration that even during these days of self-absorbed politicians, bored billionaires, grasping special interests and out-and-out ideologues, it’s possible to get things – important things – done.

It isn’t easy. It takes a long time. It doesn’t tolerate grandstanding or a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. And it requires those involved to recognize their collective responsibility to the people on whose behalf they are exercising the art of governance.

God love ‘em!

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Mary Ellen Howard
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:02am
Leadership and collaboration in Detroit to benefit whom? Not poor black families. The recent ALICE report by the United Ways of Michigan concludes that 67% of households in Detroit do not have sufficient income to meet their basic needs--housing, food, utilities. And yet the bankruptcy process was used to shut off water to at least 25,000 households. While stadiums are financed with tax breaks, Detroiters still want for a decent level of basic services: police, fire, EMS, street lights, public schools, and now water. Condos for the rich are developed, but where is the affordable housing for the poor who are being displaced? There is a Haitian saying, "Where you stand determines what you see." The author of this article and the leadership in Detroit are not standing with the 67%.
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 1:12pm
I am a little taken aback at your statement about good governance. As a newspaper man I am surprised to see you think good governance permits closed sessions while the public body debates and argues while reaching a, albeit "good," decision. With a citizenry already suspicious of the state's "overseer" and having elected their members of the city council and their mayor, with their collective promises to get rid of the state's EM, how can a citizen know why the council and the mayor did what they did? How can they consider the facts behind the decision? And, I think most importantly, if a plan from the bankruptcy court is to succeed in its implementation while the old culture of secret deals and keeping citizens in the dark prevails, what are its chances and the city’s of attracting new people to the city? As the Legislature said when it passed OMA and FOIA: The ideal of a democratic government is too often thwarted by bureaucratic secrecy and unresponsive officials. Citizens frequently find it difficult to discover what decisions are being made and what facts lie behind those decisions. The Open Meetings Act, Public Act No. 267 of 1976, protects your right to know what’s going on in government by opening to full public view the processes by which elected and non elected officials make decisions on your behalf
John Q. Public
Wed, 10/01/2014 - 12:00am
“We happen to be living during a leadership crisis, and a time when few people have faith in elites to govern from the top. We live in a vibrant society that is not being led. We don’t suffer from an abuse of power as much as a nonuse of power.”--Brooks Would only that those last two sentences were true! I cannot imagine a more desirable situation in which to live. Coincidentally, I noted in another story before reading this one that you can judge how big a charlatan someone is by noting how often he refers to himself and his minions as "leaders". Most of the tribulations of men can be traced to "leaders" trying to take them in directions that they not only don't want to go, but have damned good reasons for not wanting to. Usually, those directions involve enrichment of the "leaders" at the expense of the laymen, whom the "leaders" attempt to convince that "suffering will make you a better person" as they stab them in the back. The good news is, anyone can be a "leader". Just go to a professional conference. When you return, parrot what you heard there, and then refer to yourself as a "thought leader."