Detroit official: City power not restored to everyone

When Gov. Rick Snyder brought in Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to run Detroit, the city's elected officials were pretty much cut out of the decision making process. 

Judge Steven Rhodes, called Detroit's emergence from bankruptcy a return to Democracy -  but one city official disagrees.

"I look forward to turning the city back to its elected officials and residents so they can go forward and rise from the ashes again," Orr said.

"I'm very pleased to have traditional governance back in the city of Detroit," Snyder said.

That was Orr and Snyder gushing after Detroit's plan to get out of bankruptcy won approval. Well, it's been a couple weeks since Democracy was supposedly restored and some Detroit officials are saying not so fast.

"We are powerless," said Willie Bell. "I feel like I took an oath in January and I haven't been able to fulfill that oath to the people of the city of Detroit."

Bell is chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners and was a police officer for more than 30 years. Last year, he was elected to the police commission.

"We were looking forward that we would have the awesome responsibility of oversight of the police department," Bell said.

The city's new charter, just two years old, increased the powers of the police commission. It says "civilian oversight and supervisory control of the paramilitary operations of the city is a principle of deep significance in our community."

"As a former police officer, I understand the police culture," Bell said. "You can't have the police watching the police."

But Orr overruled the charter more than a year ago, giving most of the commission's power to Police Chief James Craig. Bell likes Craig, but likes checks and balances more.

Orr restored much of Mayor Mike Duggan and the city council's powers in September, but Bell says the commission is still without its clout.

"The mayor gained our power, in fact he assumed some of our power," Bell said.

But the city's top attorney Butch Hollowell says there's nothing the mayor can do until Orr's order is up for review in a year.

"While we may not have loved all those orders that got put in place, it's something that we have to live with," Hollowell said.

Under Orr's order, the the commission lost the power to:
  • Approve the police budget.
  • Final say on discipline cases.
  • Approve promotions.
  • Hire personnel director.
  • Issue annual report on police activity.
Bell says he's concerned that Duggan doesn't want the commission to regain those powers ever.

"He wants to continue our lesser role, not really have oversight," Bell said. "But we should be a review board. you know what that means. we might as well not be there."

Hollowell disagrees but he acknowledges that Duggan would like to find an alternative to simply giving the commission the powers outlined in the city charter.

"We want the police commission to play a vigorous role," Hollowell said. "We've talked with them about using this one-year time period in which to figure out best practices and for them to play the incredibly important role that they're supposed to play in terms of overseeing complaints from the public and trying to get those resolved."

Bell is scheduled to go before the council Tuesday where he is hoping to find allies. 
 

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