City of Detroit: Another fine mess

Rod Meloni discusses Detroit lawsuit, city's financial debacle

Author: Rod Meloni, Local 4 Business Editor, @RodMeloni
Published On: Jun 13 2012 06:16:49 PM EDT
DETROIT -

A few thoughts while leaving Mason, Mich. this afternoon.

Mayor Dave Bing, in his previous career as a Hall of Fame Basketball player, dunked over Wilt Chamberlain. What kind of confidence and authority did that require? A boatload! As a child who grew up in the Boston suburbs, my church altar boy group took an annual trip to the Boston Garden. There I saw first hand Dave Bing shred the Boston Celtics defense with all due alacrity and precision. I vividly remember cheering against Dave Bing as a formidable foe to my then beloved Celtics. He was fearless and we feared him. Today, the strains of Paul Simon’s “where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” ring in my head. Mr. Mayor, where is that swagger, power and sense of control you brought to the hardwood on a day like this? I do not ask blithely. It matters greatly. I’ll explain in a minute.

For now let’s get some context. The hearing in Judge William Collette’s Ingham County Circuit courtroom today was a legitimate fulcrum moment for the City of Detroit; its financial wherewithal hung in the balance. Judge Collette needed just 27 minutes to make mincemeat of Corporation Counsel Krystal Crittendon’s case. It sought declaratory judgment on Detroit’s consent agreement with Lansing. She sent her second in command, James Noseda, to argue the deal is void because the city is owed money by the state. She felt the new City Charter gave her this power in the aftermath of the Kwame Kilpatrick administration’s corruption probe. Noseda was on edge throughout the hearing as Collette kept asking questions like “who does the corporation counsel report to?” [The mayor and City Council although she is a mayoral appointee] Why would the state enter into an invalid contract? Noseda’s peevish rejoinders told you all you needed to know about the level of discomfort he felt arguing a position he knew was being shot at with an ack ack gun. Collette swiftly ruled Crittendon had no authority to file her request for declaratory judgment. What’s more, she was put up to filing what amounted to a frivolous case by a city council member who voted against the agreement. [JoAnn Watson]. The consent agreement stands, the mayor and the state carry on and another brush with financial disaster is averted. This legal kerfuffle dominated the headlines both local and even national for the past week. A lot of energy expended on this specious legal case, for nothing.

So let’s get back to mayor Bing’s fearless dunks. An important part of executive leadership is knowing where the buck stops. Next is what to do about it when your underlings aren’t following orders. Now, Bing has shown that he knows a little something about that. During his tenure he has gone through a lot of appointees. He is willing to fire. More troublesome though is that some, like his deputy mayor and communications director have come and gone and come back again. That Bing sent packing and then brought back Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis and Communications Director Bob Warfield shows more loyalty than conviction. Loyalty is great; wavering and being indecisive is not.

That is the real subject of this piece. Dithering, mulling over tough decisions, being tentative when a dunk over Wilt Chamberlain was required is a luxury neither Mayor Bing nor the city’s residents could afford. Yet, that is precisely what he did and what the city got. No, firing Crystal Krittendon was not the answer. Making certain she knew who was boss was. The brief history of the last week shows Mayor Bing left his fearlessness somewhere in a gym bag. Let’s remember the consent agreement was negotiated between the mayor and the state over months. When the finished product finally took shape, the mayor ran it by Krystal Crittendon for the once over. She gave it the thumbs up. For all the caterwauling about the consent agreement at the council table, city council passed it by a 5 to 4 vote. Deal done, have a nice day! Except council member JoAnn Watson did not want the consent agreement and wanted to make certain every last stone was unearthed to try and kill it. She went to Crittendon, [who had already signed off on the deal] and asked her to reconsider. She looked at the new charter language read that she is free to do what she wants and she was free to sue to enforce charter language that says any entity in default with the city can not enter into a contract with the city. Crittendon took Watson’s pet peeve, the contention the State owes the City a quarter of a billion dollars in back revenue sharing dollars, and ran to Judge Collette hoping for a friendly ruling.

Now this is politics, and Bing is the first to admit he is more businessman than politician. But this is where decisiveness and fearlessness needed to be wielded like a tomahawk jam. Instead, we saw a week of feeble dithering. Mayor Bing first heard about Crittendon’s suit and we were told he didn’t seem concerned about it in private. Then publically we heard that wasn’t the case. He started getting nervous about the suit. Then, last Friday, the mayor said he had looked at the charter language and it empowered Crittendon [again a mayoral appointee] to sue on her own. He made it sound as if the issue had been lawyered [considering his newly acquired counsel Mike McGee of Miller Canfield was at his side] and his hands were tied. He said the changes in the City Charter all but left him and City Council standing on the sidelines with their hands in their pockets. It was at this news conference where Bing’s new CFO under the consent agreement Jack Martin gave the city a week before it ran out of cash. That news conference was in response to the council’s refusal to hold an emergency session on the subject and making Mayor Bing look extremely weak waiting until Monday. That Monday meeting was Detroit dysfunction at its finest. The mayor started out by demanding Crittendon stand down with her suit, and demanded city council take a vote on a meaningless resolution that would demand Crittendon stand down; neither happened. The Mayor got weaker. Everyone there was blaming someone else, council members had with their noses out of joint because the governor wasn’t backing down and being “disrespectful”. At the end of a two hour marathon haggling session nothing was accomplished. Mayor Bing just sat there trying to explain the dire straights the city was in, that the state had the power. He could not have looked less in command.

Fast forward to this morning. Upon arrival in Judge Collette’s Mason, Michigan court chambers an emergency filing appeared in the six inch thick file. On the top was a two pronged emergency motion. Mayor Dave Bing’s attorneys from Miller Canfield wrote to Judge Collette: “The City of Detroit’s Corporation Counsel does not have, and has never had, the authority under the Detroit City Charter to initiate this action on behalf of the city. In fact, City of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing (mayor) recently directed corporation counsel to withdraw the complaint in this case. Corporation counsel has ignored the mayor’s directive and she has exceeded the scope of her authority by bringing this action challenging the validity of the Financial Stability Agreement “Consent Agreement”. Where was this a week ago? Why did the mayor need a judge’s ruling to show a mayoral appointee the city’s organizational chart? What part of “you work for me” did Crittendon miss? This is a message the mayor could have sent through back door channels a week ago. No Bing didn’t have the votes to fire Crittendon. But it’s likely he didn’t have them as a result of the fact no one fears thumbing their nose at him. If Bing didn’t look weak, had been fearless, truly made his case originally, never told the public she was correct and his hands were tied initially; stated in no uncertain terms the corporation counses was off the reservation from the start, it’s entirely possible he could have gotten the six votes he needed to fire her. He would not have even had to take the vote to make the threat. Drop the suit or you’re fired. Instead, he wavered. He called it a mere disagreement between employees on the same side and played nice with Crittendon. In the end Mayor Bing lost a week of precious staff time at the most inopportune time, fighting an unnecessary battle with a subordinate. This is no thunder jam; it’s under whelm through indecision. There is a place for fear in politics. There is a place for dunking over whom ever gets in your way! There is a place for toughness when it’s called for and it doesn’t even have to show in public. Mr. Mayor you could have dunked over Krystal Crittendon and prevented that horrible picture of a decrepit Detroit house from appearing on the Drudge Report for a week. You could have prevented the continued international headlines about the City of Detroit and a debt rating downgrade Friday had you shown even a hint your previous fearlessness. This truly was another fine mess.