Monday, March 19, 2012

7 Things That Should Be Changed in the Proposed Consent Agreement

Governor Rick Snyder unveiled his proposed consent agreement last Tuesday. Since then, there has been almost unending amount of howling from certain quarters within our community. Those complaints, by the way, came from many of those who were also opposed to the various reforms that we written into the new City Charter that was overwhelmingly enacted last year. Regardless of how much those individuals might protest, the fact of the matter is that consent agreement is likely coming very soon and it's probably the best thing for Detroiters.

With that in mind, I would like to offer seven specific suggestions that I believe Mayor Dave Bing as well as everyone on the City Council and Lansing should carefully consider.

#1. Guarantee Public Involvement in the Process
No matter what someone somewhere might plug into a spreadsheet, the fact remains is that it is our tax dollars that are being spent here and our futures that are at stake. While Governor Snyder was busy building his fortune, thousands of middle class families were fighting to make Detroit a place worth living in. Their efforts, quite frankly, are the main reason why this town is still standing.

If those families are going to be asked to continue the fight, and if new ones are going to asked to join in, then they must be guaranteed that they will have an opportunity to have their objections heard and their suggestions duly considered. There will unquestionably be a loud outpouring of people that my friend Jeff Wattrick of MLive.com refers to as "grape throwers" in his columns. It could be tempting to shut them out out of the process, but shutting them out also means shutting out the ordinary middle class families who have kept Detroit afloat for this long, which only gives those families yet another reason to leave.

#2. Guarantee Openness and Transparency in the Process
One of the unfortunate things about the intersection of money and politics is that people who fully intend to rip you off rarely make their intentions clear. In order to weed out that kind of corruption, one needs an active, engaged, and informed citizenry - and that citizenry requires openness and transparency to do its job.

Most of this transparency is achieved through diligent compliance with Freedom of Information, Open Meetings, and Whistleblower Protection Acts. It will unquestionably be tempting for those in power to find a way around those statues. However, those urges need to be resisted. I recommend that language be written into the consent agreement guaranteeing said compliance.

#3. No Severance for Appointed Officials
The current draft of the consent agreement calls for $1 million in severance pay for certain appointed officials. After all of the problems that we have seen at the Detroit Metropolitan  Airport Authority concerning severance pay for Wayne County officials, I fail to see any valid reason why the people of Detroit should consider paying anyone $1 million in severance.

That section of the proposed consent agreement should be considered to be dead on arrival.

#4. Protect the City's Irreplaceable Assets
There is always going to be someone who wants to sell Belle Isle and convert it into a gated community or to sell off everything in the DIA. If this consent agreement is going to have the kind of buy-in that is needed from all of the stakeholders, we need to ensure that those assets won't be sold off in some closed door meeting.

There very well may be a legitimate case for selling certain assets, such as the Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods. However, those discussions need to take place the light of day where anyone can offer their objections or support. Therefore, I propose adding language to the consent agreement that would require either a vote of the full City Council or the public through a ballot initiative before city assets can be sold or transferred to another entity.

Stock Image by FOTOCHROMO
#5. Retain the City's Duty to Bargain with the Unions
Many of my conservative friends like to blame all of the City of Detroit's problems on labor unions. It shouldn't be a surprise, therefore, that there is language in the current consent agreement stipulating that the City no longer has a duty to bargain with the unions. The reality of the situation is that Detroit's labor unions have agreed to concession after concession, just as residents have endured service cut after service cut. Many of the City's unionized workers, in fact, have a total compensation package that costs less than their private sector counterparts.

With all of this being true, there really is no reason to eliminate the City of Detroit's legal duty to bargain with its labor unions. All that this language does is give the unions one more reason to fight this process. That does not help solve the problems that face our city.

#6. Be Careful with Consolidation
The current draft of the consent agreement calls for the Chief Operating Officer to develop a plan to consolidate or dissolve D-DOT, DPW, the Public Lighting Department, the Information Technology Department, the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport, as well as the Water & Sewage Department within the next year. There very well may be a legitimate rationale for consolidating or dissolving some of these entities. However, I believe that it must be done with extreme caution.

For example, many have called for merging D-DOT and SMART into a regional transit system over the years. However, since no regional authority currently exists and since it is still doubtful that it ever will exist, it seems premature to call for a plan within one year to dissolve or consolidate D-DOT before the regional authority even exists.

I believe it would be better for the consent agreement to require instead a public review process whereby all options for long-term cost-savings are discussed. If and when our suburban neighbors indicate that they are interested in discussing a merging the bus systems, we can have that conversation. However, with so many suburban communities leaving SMART to either not have a bus system or to have one that they set up, anything beyond that is overly optimistic at best and likely not worth our time.

#7. Know When to Leave
The current draft of the consent agreement sets out a series of metrics that the City of Detroit will have to achieve in order to get back its right to operate without state oversight. This includes such things as three years without a deficit in any of its accounts and/or a long-term credit rating of Aa or higher from at least two of the national credit rating agencies.

I don't have a problem with the idea of metrics. The lawyers can argue over what those metrics should be.

However, I certain do have a problem with the clause in the consent agreement that states that state officials can keep this process going even if the City of Detroit meets every single one of those metrics. This is simply unacceptable and intolerable.
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