Politics

Detroit Mayor "Works to Be Hands-on"

by | April 10, 2014
 

By Matt Helms

Mayor Mike Duggan is cementing his reputation as a hands-on mayor even as the limitations on his power in office open him up to vulnerabilities.

The latest example of the can-do Duggan came with Wednesday's announcement that he's honoring a campaign pledge to take negligent property owners to court to force them to fix up and occupy vacant homes or lose them to the Detroit Land Bank, reinforcing the tone he's set in his first 100 days in office.

While establishing a strong working relationship with emergency manager Kevyn Orr and moving in cooperation with the City Council, Duggan's first steps have focused on the nitty-gritty: getting streets plowed and buses running on time, reorganizing the public lighting authority with an aggressive new timetable to relight the city and, now, attacking blight in a systematic way. He's done so with open support of a new City Council markedly less in conflict with the mayor than under Duggan's predecessor, Dave Bing.

But at the same time, Duggan has remained mostly quiet about critical issues involving the Detroit Police Department -- which Orr maintains under his own purview -- and one of the biggest redevelopment efforts in Detroit in recent years: The new Detroit Red Wings stadium development and the eventual demolition of the city-owned Joe Louis Arena, two projects that will reshape the face of downtown.

Even with the limitions he's under, political analysts say his performance so far is vintage Duggan.

"He has always been, with everything he's done, just a very hard-charging, aggressive, 'don't take no for an answer' kind of leader, which is precisely what Detroit needs at this time," said Steve Mitchell, a longtime Michigan political analyst and pollster. "And I think that as well as he's been able to work with Kevyn Orr is indicative of his ability to get things done no matter what the circumstances are."

But critics say that, in crafting a power-sharing arrangement with Orr that left Duggan out of decision-making on the Detroit Police Department and Orr still in control of the city's finances, the mayor has ceded a critical role in important issues facing residents. He's been forced, for one, to tone down speaking out against bankruptcy actions he previously opposed, including cuts to pensions of retired city workers.

Political analyst Greg Bowens said Duggan's lack of involvement in policing issues left him unable to take forceful stands against major crimes in the city or to act as a moral authority during headline-grabbing incidents including including residents shooting would-be burglars and the beating of suburban motorist Steve Utash, who stopped to check on a young boy who Utash accidentally hit last week, only to be beaten by a mob.

Bowens also noted that Duggan -- a key player in bringing new baseball and football stadiums to downtown Detroit -- said very little as city leaders negotiated over a new hockey arena the Ilitch organization plans to build on Woodward just north of downtown, and whether it will bring enough benefits to the city's tax rolls and guaranteed jobs for Detroiters.

"Duggan hasn't seemed to embrace the role of mayor in terms of being able to lead beyond the operations of city government and the 11th floor of City Hall," Bowens said. "It may be that, on the end of the day, he's not really the type of cheerleader the city needs."

Then again, the circumstances under which Duggan and the new council took office in January are unlike any that previous elected officials have faced in Detroit, with the city under a state oversight and trudging through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Duggan campaigned against state intervention, pledging to work to oust Orr and convince Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to allow Duggan to take the city back. But after he was elected, Duggan opted to work cooperatively with the EM. He and council members appear to have agreed to a new strategy of letting Orr's tenure play out and working to convince Snyder that they're capable of working together to run the city once Orr's gone and the city has exited bankruptcy.

That shift in tactics may not have made opponents of state intervention happy, but it's lead to a dramatic shift in the relationship between the mayor's office and the city's legislative branch.

Duggan acknowledges the limitations on what he can do as mayor, telling a community meeting Wednesday night about the anti-blight effort that "there is nothing frustrates me more than not being responsible for public safety."

He said in an interview afterward that criticisms come with the territory and he's not dwelling on them.

"I'm focusing on what I can control," Duggan said. "Kevyn Orr will be gone in 5 1/2 months, and so I'm able to I think deliver results on the lights, deliver results on EMS response times, deliver results on the blight, getting a little bit better at the snow plowing, and we're just going to keep building on that."

Council President Brenda Jones said Wednesday that she was concerned, during last fall's election, that since Duggan hadn't lived in the city for decades, he might not connect with everyday Detroiters and reflect their concerns as the city's top elected official. Jones, in fact, endorsed Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon in the November election.

"The mayor knew what my concern was," Jones said. "The mayor has showed me that, yes, he may not be from this community, but yes, he can relate. He has shown the people the same thing."

Spivey, who also backed Napoleon, said that he and Duggan, a former Wayne County prosecutor and Detroit Medical Center chief, met for lunch two days after the election, agreed to set aside differences in the election and work together.

"He's making a very concerted effort to create relationships so we can prove we're ready to lead when Orr's gone," Spivey said. "I know what he'd done at the county. I know what he did at the medical center. He's consistent. He brings those things here."

Jones credited Duggan with moving the focus away from downtown and Midtown areas that are doing well and restoring an emphasis on neighborhood redevelopment. But she said Duggan also did something that the city's previous three mayors did not: Establishing regular contact with council members, through frequent meetings or even phone calls as events develop.

"Even if it's at 9 o'clock at night, if something comes up that we need to talk about, we simply pick up the phone," Jones said.

"Nothing that's going on is a surprise to me, because the mayor and I along with the rest of the council are working hand in hand. You may not agree all the time, but you've established a relationship, and you can talk. No other mayor has taken me up on that suggestion."

That level of relationship was on display Wednesday as Duggan credited council members with quick action since January in consolidating the city's land-bank operations, laying groundwork for his administration's first attack on negligent property owners. Jones and Duggan were side by side, along with council members Saunteel Jenkins and Gabe Leland, to announce that the city and the land bank will take owners of abandoned homes to court to force them to fix the houses up and get them reoccupied or be forced to deed them to the city.

The targeted area is a neighborhood due south of Marygrove College on the city's west side with stately brick homes in good enough condition to renovate, although some are beyond saving. The project, which Duggan said will eventually be expanded to 26 neighborhoods a year, is patterned on one he initiated as Wayne County prosecutor in the early 2000s that brought more than 3,000 nuisance abatement lawsuits against absentee landlords and property owners. That effort resulted in more than 900 drug houses being shut down and more than 1,000 homes renovated and reoccupied.

The anti-blight effort was one of Duggan's strongest campaign themes, and delivering on it will be key to assessing the success of his tenure, said political analyst and pollster Eric Foster. He said that, even with criticisms and the limitations imposed on his powers as mayor, Duggan is so far proving to Detroiters that he's up to the challenge of fixing a city bureaucracy in desperate need of a leader who revels in the nuts-and-bolts of running government. "Dammit, it's about time that a mayor works to be that hands-on," Foster said. "You're hired to run this corporation, so you've got to know what the corporation is doing. You're not going to know if you only read a half page briefing with bullet points."

(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

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