An Extraordinary Effort to Build a Future for Detroit

The diverse group of people dealing with the city's bankruptcy could teach Washington a lot about collaboration and creativity.
by | February 10, 2014

As the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history plays out, we are experiencing an extraordinary tale of governing -- a process that could not stand in starker contrast to what is going on in Washington, with a federal government that voluntarily shut down and clearly is in a state of dysfunction. In Detroit, we are witnessing an outpouring of intergovernmental collaboration, creativity and innovation unlike anything in American history.

What's particularly remarkable is the size and variety of the cast of characters working far outside the box to find a sustainable future for the Motor City. They include federal Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, U.S. Chief District Judge Gerald Rosen, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Republican and Democratic leaders in the Michigan House and Senate, Mayor Mike Duggan, emergency manager Kevyn Orr, and foundation leaders in Michigan and across the country.

If any single individual could be said to be orchestrating this effort, it would have to be Judge Rhodes, perhaps deriving some of his syncopation chops from his alter-ego role as rhythm guitarist for a classic-rock band, the Indubitable Equivalents. Rather than merely awaiting the outcome of negotiations involving the city's more than 100,000 creditors to determine how much of a cut each would be willing to accept, the judge has been at the center of an unprecedented effort to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into a fund to supplement Detroit city workers' underfunded pensions, protect the world-class Detroit Institute of Arts and provide key resources for a sustainable future for the city.

I have been fortunate in my career to have worked with some exceptional public officials, such as former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut as he reshaped and profoundly altered his city's future and former Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, who worked tirelessly and exuberantly to bring his city back. But I have never experienced such a collection of diverse foundations, state legislators, federal judges, corporate leaders, city officials and a governor acting in profound ways to shape a future for a city whose children, to cite just one of many grim statistics, are dying at a greater rate than in any U.S. city its size or larger.

Rather than limiting themselves to simply sorting out debts, these folks have been able to put together foundation pledges in excess of $330 million for a fund to protect the Detroit Institute of Arts' city-owned masterpieces from being auctioned off. And Gov. Snyder is pushing for the state to more than match that money, to the tune of $350 million over 20 years. As the governor put it, the state's leadership from both parties is focused on the city's retirees and protecting the city's assets so that "we can grow the city of Detroit."

There are no indubitable equivalents in municipal bankruptcy to what these women and men have been assembling in Detroit, where Judge Rhodes has made clear that his court will not preside over a divvying up of assets that would leave nothing to invest in the city's future. I can only write in awe of these leaders creativity, dedication and commitment toward making the impossible possible.

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Frank Shafroth

Frank Shafroth is the director of the Center for State and Local Government Leadership at George Mason University.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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