A New Mayor in Detroit With Unclear Powers

Mike Duggan was elected mayor of Detroit, but it’s not clear where his powers end and the city’s emergency manager’s begin.

Posted: 11/13/2013 02:39 PM EST

Detroit has now had its mayoral election and it’s now clear that Mike Duggan will be the city’s new chief executive.

What is far less clear, however, is where Duggan’s authority and powers lie relative to those of the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr. It is a tangled, complicated scenario that few cities have had to experience and certainly not municipalities the size of Detroit.

Earlier this year, Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, appointed Orr as the emergency financial manager of Detroit, giving him nearly unbound authority to make decisions affecting the city’s thorny fiscal issues.  He has the power to negotiate contracts with the city’s municipal workers and also had the authority to have Detroit file for bankruptcy protection, which it did in July.

Where that leaves the man elected by Detroit residents as their mayor has been less than clear. After his election, Duggan said the roles between him and the city’s emergency manager needed to be defined.

Since Election Day, the two men sat down to discuss what their respective roles would be after Duggan is sworn in in January, since neither Orr nor Duggan has provided much detail about their discussion.

“The meeting went well and we’re looking forward to having a cooperative relationship,” Orr said, speaking with BET.com. However, the emergency manager made clear that he was not comfortable discussing any of the details of the meeting.

During the campaign, Duggan portrayed himself as a private sector manager with turnaround skills. He often said that he intended to be a fully engaged leader and that he would not be a “pretend mayor.” So many in Detroit are waiting to see how this balance of power plays out.

To many Detroit residents, however, there is a distinct racial undercurrent to how mayoral powers will unfold. Because Duggan is Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years, many in Detroit believe that he will be granted far more authority over the city’s operations than the current mayor, Dave Bing, or Duggan’s African-American opponent, Benny Napoleon, would have enjoyed.

“People here are saying that since Mike Duggan is a white man who is viewed as the turnaround guy, he will have full control over the city’s operations and Kevyn Orr will deal with creditors,” said the Rev. David A. Bullock, the pastor of the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church and head of Change Agent Consortium, a civil rights organization in Detroit.

“Most people in Detroit believe that the entire dynamic of power has shifted because Duggan is white,” Bullock said, in an interview with BET.com

The current mayor, Dave Bing, saw his mayoral powers diminish dramatically after Orr was appointed. For now, neither Orr nor Duggan is saying what kind of arrangements have been made between the two.

“The mayor-elect is somebody who has extensive experience in municipal government, extensive experience in operations and extensive business background,” said Bill Nowling, a spokesman for the emergency manager’s office. “Those skill sets don’t exist in one person very often. We would be foolish not to avail ourselves of the skills Mr. Duggan brings to the table.”

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(Photo: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

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