Multi-Faceted Krystal

The MT interview with Krystal Crittendon

Jul 24, 2013 at 12:00 am

A graduate of Wayne State University and the Detroit College of Law, Krystal Crittendon has long served in the city’s Law Department. Interim Mayor Ken Cockrel made her the city’s top lawyer in 2009. She served as corporation counsel until Mayor Dave Bing and a six-member majority of the City Council removed her from the position earlier this year after she challenged the legality of the consent agreement with the state.


Metro Times:Why do you want to be mayor?

Krystal Crittendon:Because I’m crazy. But what I’m crazy about is this city and its prospects — its residents and its future. I want to be a part of the recovery that we know is going to take place — it’s taking place really quickly now, and I think that I’m the candidate most qualified to help make some of these changes to turn things around. You know there are a lot of problems in city government, there are people who want to blame those problems on the city workers. It’s only a small part, if any, of how we got into the situation that we’re in.

MT:Why do you think voters should give you their support?

Crittendon: Not only do I know city government inside and out, and know what the problems are, and how to fix [many of them] quickly, I’ve already demonstrated that I’m going to stand up for the people in this city. I’m also someone who can compromise. As a trial attorney, you’re used to fighting with folks in the morning and having dinner with them at night, but I’m only going to compromise if it’s in the best interests of the city of Detroit. I’m not someone who’s going to go along just to get along, and I’m not someone who is ever going to compromise my principles or compromise the people in this city.

MT: What are some examples of how you would use your knowledge of how city government works?

Crittendon: What we’ve done is make across-the-board layoffs in in all departments. Everybody’s suffered the same percentage. So those departments that actually provide services for the people suffer the same percentage cut as those departments that didn’t. Those departments that generate revenue for the city of Detroit suffered the same percentage cut — in some cases, larger than some of the other departments. I was speaking to an employee the other day who works in income tax collection and she actually goes out on audits. She’s the only person, now, doing it, and in an 18-month period, she singlehandedly collected $11 million. So we just do the math: If we need to add people, they would more than pay for themselves and bring some much needed revenue into the city.

We need to invest in the city’s computer equipment. Our infrastructure is antiquated in so many departments. There are still people who have to open file drawers to find out information. When you go to the city of Detroit, no matter what department you’re in, you should be able to speak to a clerk, you should be able to — by your tax ID number, your address, your social security number, your whatever — be able to see everything that you owe the city: every outstanding parking ticket, business license fee, inspection fee, in order to get a clearance, for instance. The way it’s set up now, it has to be manually checked in each department and forwarded to another department, and so it creates an inefficiency.

I’m just going off here.

MT: That’s OK.

Crittendon:One of my problems is that I know too much. One of the problems is that a lot of our equipment is not even Web-based in 2013, and so where everybody is cloud computing and doing things of that nature right now, we’re still opening file cabinets. And so we need to integrate the equipment so that it speaks to each other and those types of fixes are easy. Those things can be done in the first 30 days of whoever’s administration.

MT: Is there the money to do that? Because the computer stuff is not an inexpensive fix.

Crittendon: We are spending millions of dollars right now on software for consultants to use to try to advise the city as to how to restructure itself out of existence, basically, is what it is. Since January of this year, which is just now five to six months, there have been $17 million, probably more now, $17 million in contracts awarded to restructuring. … $17 million. And so, for a fraction of that, we could’ve integrated this equipment. We are spending, for example — the emergency manager’s law firm gets $450,000 a month. Things of that nature.

One of the biggest criticisms that I had with Mr. Orr’s report, financial review team’s reports, the financial advisory board reports, is that it doesn’t concentrate or even very rarely mentions the revenues that are owed to the city. And our debt, which is increasing by a billion dollars every time there’s a press conference, it started out at $14.9 billion — less than $2 billion of that was short-term debt. It’s going to come due over the next six years over a rate of about $300 million a year. But the rest of it is 30-year debt. Some of it, $6 billion or so, is water department revenues that are secured by the revenues that come into the department. Another roughly $6 billion is long-term health care and pension costs for the retirees that are going to be paid out over the next 30 years as well. So if you take those two long-term debts out of the situation, you show up at the bankruptcy court and say, “This is my short-term debt, $1.8 billion. I’ve got these assets and I’ve got these debts owed to me by a bunch of debtors.” I’m wondering what the judge would say. He would probably say, first, “Go get your money, because you have assets that are out there that are sufficient to satisfy your debt. So I’m wondering, in terms of qualifying for bankruptcy, how that’s going to be maneuvered.”

MT: Do you think Mr. Orr should or should not pursue bankruptcy?

Crittendon: I think that bankruptcy would be preferred to emergency management. And he’s made these investors a deal that he knew that they were going to refuse, I guess. I think they would feel better in bankruptcy than the deal that he put on the table.

MT:Is it too simplistic to say the choice facing the new mayor and other elected officials is, “Do we cooperate with the emergency manager, or don’t we?”

Crittendon: If I thought he was here legally, then I’d be saying I’m cooperating with him. But I do believe that Public Act 436 [the current emergency manager law] is unconstitutional and illegal. You can prove that something’s constitutional in two ways: either on its face, the plain terms of the law are violating the constitution, or the way it’s being applied. And the way the emergency manager laws have been applied here in Michigan have deprived people of color in this state, more than half of them, of the right to have someone who they’ve elected represent them — have power to represent them.

MT:So you believe that it is incumbent on who is elected mayor to support the challenge to the emergency management law?

Crittendon: I think that, unless and until the courts have ruled that he is here legally, it is a breach of your obligation, if you believe that he’s not here legally, a breach of your oath of office and your obligation to the residents here for you to say you’re going to work with this.

Some of the other candidates are saying, “Well he’s here now we’ve got to learn to live with him.” The analogy that I’m giving is it’s like saying that you go on vacation, somebody breaks into your house and takes up residence as a squatter. You don’t come back and say, “They’re here now. I might as well live with them.” You do everything that you can to get these people who are illegally occupying your home out of your home, because if you don’t and you sit there — they will sell off all your good china and your family heirlooms. But with an emergency manager they have the ability to go further and that is to take your pipes out of your house and your plumbing and your fixtures, and when they leave, you have just a shell of a home left. You have no government.

MT:What skills do you bring to the mayor’s job that would help the city?

Crittendon: As the lawyer for the city, you don’t just provide legal advice. Now you don’t have the ability to make policy. There are some things that, as a lawyer, I might have philosophically disagreed with. My job, however, is just to make sure that it is legal, and I might tell mayor or city council or police chief, however, I don’t think it’s a good idea but my opinion about whether it’s a good idea is not relevant. And so I have had to have knowledge not just of the legalities of those specific contracts or projects, but I have to know all of the inner workings. I have to know how it’s going to affect HUD dollars, what federal regulations are impacted. So there is not going to be any learning curve because as corporation counsel, and even before I was corporation counsel, I was a staff attorney for 14 years. I was not going to sign my name to any document unless I fully understood it, and fully vetted it to make sure that it was not only legal on its face but that it would not be illegal or impact any other deals, projects, systems, anything within city government. So the learning curve is something you’re not going to have to deal with if I’m elected mayor.

MT:Despite your experience, going from managing a department to being mayor and overseeing multiple departments, it’s still new territory.

Crittendon: What you have to do is you have to be able to identify people who are skilled in every aspect of the department that you’re contemplating appointing them over. If anyone thinks that the mayor is going to be running the police department, the fire department, the buildings and safety and DOT, he or she is mistaken. You have to have competent people in those departments. We’ve had people who’ve been career politicians be mayor, we’ve had people who’ve not, and it’s a crapshoot in terms of whether you think one or the other is better. What we need is someone in that office who is bright, someone who understands city government, somebody who’s ethical, somebody who knows how to motivate other people, and somebody who knows how to identify talent. I will say, however, that out of all the candidates that are out there, none of them have been in the position that you just described, where they have supervised people in every department. I’ve, at least, worked with people in every department.

MT:What are some of the weaknesses that you have to overcome to be successful?

Crittendon: My biggest weakness is that I always have problems answering this question, and I’ve been asked it before. I do need to learn to delegate authority better, I will say that.

I know how to pick competent people to do what I’ve done in respect to supervisors in the department. We’ve been under budget. Even though our budget has been cut tremendously in the law department every year, so we’ve made the most that we can out of not being sufficiently resourced. But even though I delegate it, I do it when I stay on top of what the person is doing. So I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older to trust more the people that I’ve put into position and not let them catch me supervising them.

MT:Let’s talk about the interest rate swaps, which are costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars? Is that something you think could, should be investigated?

Crittendon: Absolutely. And those swaps were always a bad idea.

MT:But you were at the table when those agreements were being made, weren’t you?

Crittendon: In terms of legal advice, I can’t tell you what the legal advice is unless the client waives the privilege. I will tell you this — I don’t think that the swaps are illegal. I think it’s bad policy and it’s a bad idea, and so from a legal perspective, if one of the clients — mayor or city council — asks you about something, as the lawyer for the city, your response has to be, “Is it legal or not legal?” Whether they want to take your advice or you offer your advice concerning whether it’s a good idea is irrelevant. That’s one the biggest challenges to being just a lawyer for the city, because there are a number of things that your clients might do that you might think is a bad idea, bad policy, stupid. But if it’s not illegal you can’t prevent it from going forth.

MT: What would be your administration’s top three priorities?

Crittendon: I hope that all the candidates are going to say this, but we’ve got to do something about the crime in this city, and I know that they are, because it’s the biggest thing on people’s radar, the crime. One way we’re going to help fix the crime is to bring some jobs to the residents here, and there are wonderful things taking place in Midtown and downtown, but they have to take place in the neighborhoods as well. The small and the midsized businesses, those are the businesses that are going to employ the Detroiters — the people that work here, the people that are unemployed. Unfortunately, too many of the larger companies that relocate to the city actually bring their workforce with them, so we need to make it a safe city in order for people to feel comfortable enough to want to open their businesses here. And we also need to bring businesses here in order to make it a safe city, so they go hand in hand. Getting the crime under control, the blight, the city — a lot of these neighborhoods look terrible, and I will just say it: one of the main reasons I’m running is because there is so much concentration of the development and beautification in specific areas and people have allowed these other neighborhoods to just deteriorate to a place where it shouldn’t happen. There are people who are working too hard in their neighborhoods — their block clubs, their community groups — in order to maintain what they have, and they’re getting too little help from their city government.

MT: The city has spent a lot of money of a lot of years tearing down abandoned homes and buildings, but blight remains a huge problem.

Crittendon: Well, what has happened is people have done things in this city because they’ve been allowed to do it. You don’t see people walk away from property that they own in other communities like you do here in the city, and they do it because they know they can get away with it. No one is going to make them take care of their properties. The banks have forced a lot of people out of their homes in this city. Not everyone who’s left has left so voluntarily, because they couldn’t stand the city anymore. We were specifically targeted by some of the large banks for the subprime lending. People would’ve qualified for traditional loans — they put them in subprime products. When those payments ballooned, those people were forced out of their homes. We found out a couple of years ago that some of these banks, they’ve never even consummated the foreclosures. So what they did: put the people out of the house, people left, and so now there’s nobody who we can make to take care of the property, because the property owner and the bank are pointing fingers at each other, saying “I’m just the equity owner, I’m not the legal owner.”

And let me just say something else: These properties here are boarded up, the banks aren’t being made to take care of them, they don’t rehab them, they don’t sell them, they just let them sit there. They don’t remediate the blight, the fire hazards. The fire fighters are going to the same structures over and over and over again. They stay there for years. Nobody’s paying taxes on them, and they do it because they know no one will sue them to make them take care of it. There’s a lot of things that take place in this city because people know no one is going to do anything to make them do it. … For a few years, Halloween, I patrolled the Brightmoor area for the three days surrounding, including, Halloween. And one year, they dumped mattresses … everything. One year, the first night we drove through, and there were mattresses and things in the middle of the street. I went back and told the DPW director and he had someone come out that Saturday and clear it up. By Sunday, there were more mattresses. They don’t do that in other communities because they know they can dump with impunity here and if they get caught no one will do anything. So we’ve got to change this whole climate and culture in the city of Detroit where people know that if they do these things in the city, then we’re going to make you pay for it. If you dump, we’re going to make you pay to remediate the blight. If you have a property or you need to sell it, rehab it or tear it down, but you can’t just let it sit there year after year.

MT: How difficult would it be to identify bank-owned properties?

Crittendon: Not difficult at all. You’d just have to do a title search for each one of the properties. But one of the things—

MT: You’d have to go property by property?

Crittendon: Probably property by property.

MT: So that’d be pretty time consuming.

Crittendon: It’d be time consuming but it’d be certainly worth the exercise … it would definitely be a worth the exercise for the city to undertake it.

MT: Because then they could go after those banks?

Crittendon: If you went after a couple of them, you’d be able to pay for the people it took to do the search.

MT: One of the problems is that people are continuing to leave the city. Despite the population of midtown, downtown, there’s still a loss. Now how would you address that?

Crittendon: Right. We need to attract people to the city, we need to maintain those that are here. The main taming — getting crime under control is going to be a big one. People are leaving in the most part because they don’t feel safe and they know that if they need to summon police, fire, EMS through 911, there’s a likelihood that they may not show up. People call 911, they don’t look at their watches just to see when they show up — they look at their calendars. You call on a Tuesday, they show up on a Thursday. I’ve actually had that happen, it was a Wednesday though. They came the next day. So they need to be able to feel safe in their community. They want their families to feel safe. A lot of people, when it’s time to access the school system, they know that they’ll either have to start putting away money so they can put children in private school. The charter school experiment has not been a successful experiment that we’ve conducted with our schoolchildren here in the city of Detroit. What we should have done is pooled all of our resources and made sure we had a strong public school system instead of siphoning off the money and creating this alternative school system. So that’s a big problem. Paying the high taxes, the high insurance rate to insure your home and your vehicles — it’s kind of hard to stash away money to also take care of your child’s education from K through 12. So we’ve got to get some relief with respect to insurance and there has to be a fix to this educational crisis that’s looming here. We’ve got to make it safe. But there are still, having said all that, people who are moving into the city daily. There are people leaving, but there are people moving. We can take care of some of the blight. That will help stabilize the neighborhoods. People feel unsafe living next to or across the street from a burned-out or boarded-up structure. They become havens for illegal activity in many cases, so that needs to come down.

MT: So do you think the way to address the blight is to go after the property owners, especially the banks?

Crittendon: Especially the banks, but not just the banks. We have a lot of slumlords who live elsewhere but have property here that they don’t take care of, and no one’s making them do anything with that either. We had a list a few years ago of the top offenders in Michigan… there are homes that they used to own here, and they’ve moved outside of the state… So that is one way.

MT: Do you think the laws are sufficient to do that or would there have to be changes in the law in order to accomplish that?

Crittendon: There are some tweaks to the law that would make some of this easier, and if we had a supportive legislature, because a lot of it is state law, if we had a supportive legislature in Lansing, it would help with some of the things we need done. I’ll give you an example of some of the things: We’ve been asking in Lansing — and this isn’t related to the property — but this is related to withholding the income taxes from non-residents. We’ve been asking that state law require the employers to withhold, and we’ve not been able to get that done. The anti-residency statute in 2000 caused a lot of flight from the city of Detroit. We used to be able to require public employees to live in the cities where they do their paychecks, right? In 2000, that was changed. It had a big effect — it was probably targeted toward Detroit, because public servants in other communities probably didn’t mind so much having to live in those communities in order to work there. But with the taxes and the school system and all the other problems that we have in the city of Detroit, there was a problem to have to live in the city of Detroit to draw your paycheck from it. If we could get that reversed, that would help. A number of things that would help the city of Detroit retain and attract the population, would be to get some help from the Michigan Legislature.

MT: How about in terms of relationships with the county executives in the surrounding counties? How important do you think it is to work with them on these things?

Crittendon:It is important, especially if we’re going to share resources. It is important to have a good relationship with them, but not just for the sake of having a good relationship. Someone’s got to look out for the city of Detroit. Some of the city’s assets, and the Water Department is an asset, I don’t understand the regionalization of the Water Department. There are people who think their water rates are inflated because of something the city of Detroit is doing. Those communities are marking up the water after we sell it to them, and we’re getting blamed for it. Our water department is the best in the world — we have the best water treatment system in the world, not just in the United States or in Michigan. It is an asset and it would be considered an asset by any other community, and the purpose of regionalization would be to what? How would that benefit the city of Detroit? I don’t understand that. There are people saying maybe we need to bottle the water and make a profit off of it, things of that nature. If that is in fact the case, the city of Detroit should be the person bottling the water, the entity bottling the water.

MT:What question should we have asked that we didn’t ask you?

Crittendon: First of all, I did want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak because as you know, I’m not the media darling of a lot of folks. I don’t take it personally. I know it’s not me, it’s my message. I’ve kind of been portrayed as somebody who’s difficult to get along with — I’m not at all. Ask some of the judges and lawyers whom I’ve worked with over the past 19 years. But I am not someone, as I said, who’s going to go along with someone just to get along. … I did what the law required and not what the mayor wanted [in terms of opposing the consent agreement with the state], and that was somehow portrayed as being an act of a renegade or a rogue or something of that nature even though the mayor initially wanted it done. He changed his mind and I didn’t, but I don’t regret that it was done because I did the right thing and I sleep well every night. But people should support the fact that there is someone who’s willing to stand up for what’s right, stand up for the city’s charter.

MT:We had a few fun questions we wanted to ask.

Crittendon: Boxers or briefs?

MT:No. What are some of the songs that are always on your iPod?

Crittendon: In the past year I haven’t turned my radio off — talk radio and gospel stations, so you probably wouldn’t even know any of the songs that I have on my radio, but I will say this: I went to karaoke the other night and I sang “I Will Survive.” I said, “The city of Detroit will survive.” So “I Will Survive” is one of my all-time favorites.