By Joe Guillen

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, in the face of a new lawsuit that challenges the City Council's ability to hold session, has told the council to continue meeting as usual even though it cannot take any official action without his approval.

The council met Tuesday as scheduled -- with Orr's blessing -- the day after labor activist Robert Davis filed a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court, asking a judge to stop the body from meeting. Davis said an emergency manager appointment removes authority from the council to meet, deliberate or spend city funds.

But Orr spokesman Bill Nowling said Tuesday that the state's emergency manager law, which is the subject of a separate legal challenge, does not prevent council sessions.

"The law is quite specific about what actions have to be approved by City Council, but it does not say that they cannot meet," Nowling said at an impromptu news briefing at city hall. "It's Kevyn Orr's position that council can continue to meet."

Orr's response to Davis' lawsuit shed some light on the council's role under the emergency manager, but the body's exact responsibilities have yet to be fully defined.

Orr, a Washington, D.C., bankruptcy lawyer who started on the job March 25, already has decided to maintain the council's pay and benefits for the time being to show that he will work collaboratively with the city's elected leaders. But Orr can approve city contracts and make other decisions without the council's approval.

"Any action they take as a body ... would require the approval of the emergency manager," Nowling said.

Council President Charles Pugh said the council should still be relied upon to parse through public contracts and monitor other aspects of city government.

"These are still public dollars that have to be accounted for," Pugh said.

Pugh said he expects the council's role to be formalized in the next few weeks. He said he hopes the council will play a meaningful role in the budget process, which will begin to unfold when Mayor Dave Bing presents his budget to the panel April 12. The budget will be subject to Orr's approval.

The council will continue voting on legal settlements, contracts and other matters in the meantime. But all their decisions will be advisory, Nowling said.

Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown said Orr's arrival has not changed his approach to the job.

"Everything I've been doing the last three years, I'll continue to do the same thing," Brown said. "What the emergency manager does, I can't control. For me, it's business as usual."

An April 17 hearing has been set in Davis' lawsuit to prevent the council from meeting. Pugh said Orr told him to continue meeting despite the lawsuit.

Davis, who works for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has filed several legal challenges to the application of emergency managers in Detroit and the Highland Park Schools, lawsuits frequently rebuffed in appellate courts.

He is the subject of a federal investigation and was indicted last year on charges he pocketed more than $125,000 from the Highland Park district by submitting false invoices for advertising.

(c)2013 Detroit Free Press