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Break Down In Motor City Over New Manager?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, R&B heavyweight Brian McKnight has sold more than 20 million albums over the course of his 20 year career. He'll tell us about his latest and he pushes back against some critics and the fans who think he may have gotten just a little too grown for their taste. We'll tell you what we mean in just a few minutes.

But first, we are spending some time today talking about issues in some of our most important cities. We started in New York. Now we head to the Motor City, Detroit. Last week, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, a Washington, D.C. bankruptcy lawyer named Kevyn Orr, to take charge of the city's finances. That means he - and not the elected mayor and city council - now has the ultimate authority to pay the city's bills, sell assets, and cancel contracts.

As you might imagine, some residents are outraged, saying that this is a violation of their sovereignty. We've been following this story closely, trying to bring a variety of perspectives about this, so now we want to hear from Rochelle Riley. She's a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

Rochelle, thanks so much for joining us once again.


MARTIN: Now, of course we've heard a lot of outrage, but we hear first often from elected officials whose authority has been directly abridged or terminated. More broadly, though, Rochelle, what reaction do you think there is to this move in the city?

RILEY: Well, the reaction is mixed, as you would expect. There are lots of activists and longtime Detroiters who feel like they elected this city council and this mayor and it's their mess to clean up. But there are Detroiters who want this fixed because they are really at their wits' end with high property taxes, with low services, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.

MARTIN: Now, obviously there's a racial component to this. I don't think it behooves us to ignore that fact. Now, Bloomberg News says when you take all the cities under financial stewardship in Michigan, almost half of the state's African-American population will live under the rule - their word - of state overseers that they didn't elect. It seems as though Kevyn Orr, the new emergency manager, has been trying to address that directly. I just want to play a short clip about that. He's talking here on Governor Rick Snyder's YouTube channel.

KEVYN ORR: Voting rights - obviously coming from the South, my grandmother was born in 1898. She walked the Seaboard Coastline railroad tracks every day, back and forth, rain or shine, hot or cold, to her job, and one thing she did until she died at 85 was to vote. So in a very real sense to me - she had an eighth grade education - but in a very real sense to me the issues of depriving people of their voting rights or representative voice resonates with me.

MARTIN: Now, he goes on to say that his new job is legitimate and legal and he also makes a point of saying he's a Democrat, and of course he's African-American. I think that that might have become clear. Does his personal biography do anything to assuage any people's fears?

RILEY: Not the people who are most concerned. There is one other thing he said in an interview with us last week and that's that the governor is an elected official who is trying to look out for and provide services to those Detroiters who he feels have been neglected because of the financial crisis, so he's making the case that there is still democracy and he has not - well, he hasn't started his job yet, but he is not of a mind to replace or get rid of the mayor and city council. The exact opposite. He wants to work with them to make sure that they're providing guidance and some suggestions for what needs to happen.

So people can look at him as an accountant who's come in to clean up the books or they can look at him - and I was surprised to see the Bloomberg story use the word overseer. Those types of slavery terms are quite vogue this week - in vogue this week as people are protesting this.

But there is a real reality that folks have to deal with and that's - the city is broke, so at some point, when you call the police and they don't come, when houses are burning down because the fire department doesn't have enough equipment, you have to ask yourself, what is the really important thing?

MARTIN: And finally - we have about a minute left here - you wrote that in your - you wrote that - made that very point in your column. You said yes, it suspends democracy. Yes, it's a tough pill to swallow. Isn't it necessary? And you point out all of these things. What reaction are you getting to this?

RILEY: I get the reaction from the people who agree with me. I have not, you know, had anybody to throw stuff at the steps of the paper or to be too upset. I think the biggest thing now is, because the mayor and the council have agreed to this and the mayor stood with the governor when he appointed him, they're going to see if we can't do it and do it quick.

MARTIN: Rochelle Riley is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Rochelle, keep us posted if you would, please.

RILEY: Absolutely. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.