Detroit is sinking. Memo to mayor; This is kinda urgent

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February 1, 2009

I try not to do this too often, namely running somebody else’s commentary instead of running my own mouth, but there are times when I simply cannot state the case any better so why bother? This one pretty much lays it out about what Detroit is facing and, consequently, what the next mayor of Detroit will be facing as well. Which begs the question, “Why the hell isn’t the current mayor aware of this?”

With no further ado…

Detroit Mayor Cockrel needs to exude some Obama-like urgency

BY STEPHEN HENDERSON
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

It has been hard to keep up with all the activity in the White House since Barack Obama became president just last week. Executive orders on torture. Memos on openness. A massive economic stimulus package working quickly through Congress.

The pace is dizzying, to match the vertiginous instability of the nation’s economy, and the spiraling feeling that things will get worse if somebody doesn’t do something — fast.

Here in Detroit, whether or not you agree with Obama’s policies, his fast start and declared sense of urgency stand in sharp contrast to what has been happening in local government. Detroit faces a crisis that is proportionately no smaller or less significant than that consuming the nation.

Now, the city has had a new leader since last Sept. 18, when Ken Cockrel Jr. took over from disgraced Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. But, man, it has been a lot quieter in the halls of Detroit government than in Washington.

Executive orders? Haven’t heard about them. Major policy changes? Not many.

Most important: What about the budget? When Cockrel took office last year, the city was within arm’s reach of a $150-million shortfall and had failed for at least two years to keep up with required state audits. On Friday, the mayor finally announced his plan to reduce what has now ballooned to a deficit of $300 million to $400 million. Meantime, there is still an audit yet to be completed, and the city’s credit has been downgraded to junk status.

The sad truth is that Cockrel — despite striking a mature and low-key profile in welcome contrast to Kilpatrick — has not exactly set the community’s heart to racing with bold, helpful and reassuring actions.

It seems at times as though he’s mayor of a different city, one without deep, structural problems, staring bankruptcy or receivership in the face. Cockrel has talked too much about taking his time, “peeling back the onion,” as he says, of the city’s problems, to unmask the layers of dysfunction. But while he’s peeling, the city is rotting.

To be fair, the contrast between Obama and Cockrel — who meets with the Free Press editorial board Monday as part of his campaign to be elected mayor — is not entirely apt. Obama was elected to his post on a platform that included many of the changes he’s instituting. He has demonstrable public support and had more than two months of prep time to assemble a team and devise a plan for implementing his agenda. He’s had no trouble attracting top talent.

Cockrel was called to duty by Kilpatrick’s spectacular exit, with no time to get ready and not many people around him to offer help. He started with a disadvantage. And he has accomplished some things, such as the deal to renovate Cobo Hall.

But after 136 days in office, we’re just two days from Cockrel’s plan to deal with issue No. 1 facing Detroit: the city’s financial future. Meanwhile, troubles in other areas, such as crime and schools, have gone largely unaddressed.

The Cockrel administration, so far, has moved at a snail’s pace to tackle problems that are running rabbit quick and growing more complex with each passing day. For a guy who wants the job on a permanent basis, it’s hard to figure why Cockrel hasn’t been more dynamic about doing it during this paid audition.

STEPHEN HENDERSON is editorial page editor of the Free Press. Contact him at shenderson600@freepress.com, or at 313-222-6659.

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~ by Keith A. Owens on February 3, 2009.

2 Responses to “Detroit is sinking. Memo to mayor; This is kinda urgent”

  1. The whole country should be but on urgent status, but Detroit needs an executive order for sure.

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