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Opinion

Should the bankrupt, blighted city of Detroit turn in its charter?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,Detroit,Michigan,Detroit Bankruptcy

Should the city of Detroit turn in its charter and go out of existence? A good friend of mine proposed this, many years ago, and I thought it absurd. It seems less so now. Now comes Dennis Lennox, former Cheboygan County drain commissioner and Republican public affairs consultant, writing in the Detroit News, proposing pretty much the same thing. Lennox argues that the Detroit Blight Authority, a public-private partnership founded by homebuilder scion Bill Pulte, has done a far better job of “blight eradication” than the city government has, or is likely to do. (It's interesting that a couple of the big national homebuilding companies, Pulte and Eli Broad's Kaufman and Broad, got their start in metro Detroit in the 1950s, when it was still growing faster than the national average.)

“Blight eradication” means the tearing down of abandoned houses and commercial structures, of which Detroit has thousands; they are a public health hazard, are sometimes taken over by criminal squatters and, when torched by arsonists as they often are, are hazardous for firefighters. Lennox acknowledges “other positive signs happening around Detroit,” but says “it’s innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as self-appointed leaders, who are getting things done, not [newly elected Mayor Mike] Duggan and disgraced politicians like [City Council member] George Cushingberry.”

Detroit was America's fastest-growing metropolitan except the then much smaller Los Angeles between 1900 and 1930, and between 1905 and 1926 it annexed territory and expanded to its current 139 square miles. The assumption among civic leaders that a bigger municipality would be more efficient and effective in delivering city services, and for many years that was so. When I was growing up in the 1950s, Detroit had paved side streets and well-regarded public schools, while many surrounding suburban cities and townships didn't. Obviously things are different now, and bigger is no longer better. Lennox calls for “radical reforms that do away with the established order in very much the same way that Margaret Thatcher abolished London's dysfunctional government in 1986.”

“Possibilities range from,” he writes, “merging the city and Wayne County into a new metropolitan government to decentralizing today’s Detroit into smaller, more accountable and more manageable governments, based on historical townships or villages long ago lost to history.” I don’t think suburban Wayne County residents would like the first alternative, but the second is pretty much what my friend suggested so many years ago. I doubt that anything like this is going to happen, but it is clear that the progressive-era preference for large governmental units may not serve residents well any more.

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