Detroit vs. Michigan, a Continued Battle Between City and State

A longtime strain between officials in Detroit and those in the state capital in Lansing are tenser after the appointment of an emergency manager.

Posted: 04/08/2013 10:00 AM EDT

Gov. Rick Snyder and Mayor David Bing. (Photos from left: Leon Halip/Getty Images, Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The city is largely African-American and Democratic. The state’s governor is a Republican and white. And that’s but the short of the tangled relationship between the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.

It is a relationship that has become even more snared and controversial in the last month since Michigan Governor Rick Snyder determined that the city’s finances were in such dire shape that a state-appointed emergency financial manager was needed to take over Detroit’s fiscal management.

Indeed, the appointment of Kevyn Orr, a lawyer with a high-powered Washington firm, has exacerbated and brought to a boil long simmering tensions between the city and state.  

In Michigan, an emergency financial manager takes on the fiscal management of a city in the state for a period of time, wielding nearly unlimited power over everything from canceling union contracts to privatizing public services and selling some city assets. The appointment was made after a state review team issued a report to the governor stating that the city was doing a poor job of handling its finances.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is clearly vexed by the presence of a financial manager. “While there is no dispute that the city faces a financial crisis, I do dispute the review teams conclusion that my administration doesn’t have a viable plan to resolve the situation,” the mayor stated in a message on videotape. “That assertion is categorically incorrect.”

Bing has maintained that his administration has worked hard to contain and lower costs in a move to address Detroit's long-term debt.

There has long been tension between officials in the city, who tend to be Democratic and liberal, and those in the state capital of Lansing, which is now dominated by Republicans who are moderate to conservative in their leanings.

In the meantime, there is increasing tension between residents of Michigan’s largest city and the state government that presides over it, courtesy of the new manager’s appointment.

Snyder said that the decision was unavoidable. “In many respects, it's a sad day,” the Republican governor said when Orr was appointed. “But again I like to view it as a day of opportunity. This is an opportunity for us to work together.”

That was not the feeling of many Detroiters. In fact, there have been a series of protests and rallies by elected officials and advocacy groups in Detroit, who say that the decision was a slap at democracy, depriving the city’s residents of their right to democratically empower their elected officials.

“The proliferation of emergency managers in Michigan in primarily African-American communities is an injustice,” said John Olumba, a member of the Michigan House of Representatives representing a section of Detroit, in an interview with BET.com.

Still, Olumba suggested that the appointment of the manager might have the effect of curbing what he calls a culture of corruption that has permeated Detroit politics and that culminated with the conviction on federal racketeering charges of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

“I think that the installation of the emergency manager could be an opportunity for a new generation of politicians — true public servants — to arise in Detroit and we can move the previous corrupt factions to the side,” he said.

Meanwhile, Orr has sought to diffuse the festering tensions, saying he intends to work in concert with the mayor and City Council during his tenure.

“I want to offer a sincere olive branch and opportunity to work together,” Orr said of the City Council shortly after assuming the new position. “I envision them participating in this process to the extent permitted by law.”

Time will tell how well that works.

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