There is a dearth of political and civic leadership in this town which makes me wonder why some people choose to accept certain positions if they are not going to either speak out or act on the basic functions of those positions.
For some reason it’s fancy to be called a leader or to occupy a key position in government, but seldom do most of the people in these positions of influence really want to lead. That is why Detroit is headed towards a collision in leadership where in the last 12 months we’ve witnessed nothing but empty talk rather than real and significant changes at city hall.
In the last several weeks I’ve received calls from individuals that we call “civic leaders” upset with the state of affairs in the city and how business is being done at city hall under emergency manager Kevyn Orr. They are mostly concerned about how contracts are being dolled out to consultants who are jet- setting, taking off with millions of dollars.
The departure of the city’s procurement director Andre DuPerry made matters worse, especially given that he specifically accused the Orr administration of circumventing the city’s normal contractual process.
After listening to the complaints, I suggested to a couple of my callers that they send me editorials to register disapproval, and I would gladly publish them. Apparently my suggestion was not received well and that was the last time I heard from them.
But this is the problem. Leadership does not complain in silence or whisper, especially when the stakes are high for keeping quiet. The notion that you can disagree with the way things are in Detroit but not voice your opinions publicly for fear of some kind of retribution is not indicative of strong leadership.
Simply disagreeing with the emergency manager on some of his methods regarding the financial management of Detroit should not be seen as a stumbling block to the so-called progress. In fact, it is better to have many disagreements to show that one person does not have a monopoly over the affairs of the city and its future.
When Orr was recruited, he was brought in to restructure the finances of the city, not to become the Louis XIV of the 2013 Detroit socioeconomic and political revolution. I was among journalists that Orr met with a number of times to explain how he was ready to take on the giant political institution called “Detroit government” and conduct financial surgery.
But that does not mean that handing over the financial well-being of a city into the hands of one man should not be criticized or his actions challenged.
Orr is a smart lawyer and he understands and should appreciate the importance of diversity of thought, views and visions when it comes to tackling difficult situations.
The last time Orr was in my office for a visit was in the wake of his controversial comments about Detroit in the Wall Street Journal. He was remorseful yet upbeat and spoke at length about transparency and openness and saving the city money. Every statement he made as he sat across from my desk for an hour-long conversation was succinct and he continually reminded me that he did not create the financial crisis of Detroit.
One thing is clear now: It is no longer about who started the financial crisis, it is a question of who is in the driver’s seat now. And given that Orr is the driver, the emergency manager has an obligation, whether he laid his hands on the Bible or the Constitution, to uphold the public trust and not to send mixed signals to the community.
His spokesman Bill Nowling’s dismissal of the concerns of the procurement officer, Andre DuPerry, as a “disgruntled employee” was uncalled for and insulting to DuPerry’s professional status. I’ve never met him but have read much about his background, and you just don’t dismiss an individual who brings unrivaled credentials, including a long stint at General Motors in procurement.
That kind of attitude towards DuPerry was the same reception that greeted Detroit’s former auditor general, Joseph Harris, when he began calling the City Council on the carpet on a number of unjustifiable spendings. The council at the time called Harris all kinds of names and accused him several times of harboring political ambition, when he was simply doing his job as a professional. He was not disgruntled, he was doing what taxpayers expected him to do as the guardian of their money.
We should not seek to disgrace or destroy those who disagree with us. We should learn from the disagreement and find ways to make the situation better. Orr does not have all the answers to the financial crisis in Detroit and neither does anyone protesting Orr.
Detroit has long had a financial crisis and we really didn’t need bankruptcy to remind us of that. But I do not subscribe to the idea that those who oppose Orr do so to an extreme and counter-productive level. However, if we can’t offer realistic solutions then there is no basis for moving forward. And we can’t be disingenuous by suggesting what doesn’t exist. I don’t live on sugar candy mountain with the belief that it’s all rosy and we have no financial issues at city hall.
But that does not negate the fact that the road to financial recovery has to be a transparent one and the people that Orr is bringing on board should be individuals of integrity who operate above board. Detroit has had enough of “Humpty Dumpty leadership” in the past that threw dust in the eyes of taxpayers and expected no challenge or questioning. We can’t afford that type of leadership. Honest government with integrity is what we need and, in fact, must have.
Our civic leaders have an obligation to speak to the process, not in a “Humpty Dumpty” way but, rather, in a bold and challenging fashion with the intent of getting Detroit to financial sanity, not to score political points.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of the forthcoming 2014 book on Detroit titled “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future with Courage.” His most recent book “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.bankolethompson.com.