The Harris Manifesto revisited

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Detroit Auditor General Joe Harris delivered a message many officials didn't want to hear.

Given the collapse of the economy and the foreclosure crisis and the general gloom that seems to be hanging over us like cold October rain clouds, it was nice to see something in the news that actually made me feel like cheering. And I’m not talking about the firing of Matt Millen from the Lions. Maybe in the long run his canning will have some effect, but their season will be what it is whether that hallmark of incompetence is here or not. No, what had me picking up the paper and thinking “wow” was the announcement that new Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. had brought in former auditor general Joe Harris to be the city’s new chief financial officer. It’s always a risky thing to be too effusive when praising any politician or bureaucrat. They often have a way of letting us down. With that caveat in mind, I have to say that, after witnessing Harris’ work for years, it’s fair to observe that the guy has always come off as both ethical and highly competent. He’s a numbers geek who spent a decade as an independent watchdog ferreting out inefficiencies and questionable financial practices in city government, which is exactly what this beleaguered city needs right now. The message Cockrel’s been sending in the wake of Kwame Kilpatrick’s scandal-plagued reign is that he’s filling his administration with straight arrows with the aim of taking on the messes KK left behind.

A little more than three years ago, as Harris was concluding his 10-year-term as auditor general, I watched as he gave a blistering critique of this city’s leadership and a trenchant analysis of the problems facing Detroit and the steps necessary to address them. I came back to the office saying we needed to turn his speech into a cover story. We called it “The Harris Manifesto.” The piece was introduced with an editor’s note that began like this:

There was a moment of high tension last week as Detroit Auditor General Joe Harris concluded the blistering financial critique he’d delivered to City Council. With his 10-year term ending this year, Harris let loose before heading out the door. He hammered the mayor for producing a proposed budget that Harris claims bears little resemblance to reality. He slammed the unions and other special interest groups for helping to drive this city to the brink of insolvency. And he lit into the council itself, calling it “one of the most divisive and ineffective legislative bodies of this City within the past several decades.”

In short, Harris unleashed a rhetorical flamethrower that spared no one. As he concluded, all present seemed to hold their breath for an instant. How would the council respond to this blistering attack? It was easy to imagine a sword of umbrage hanging in the air, ready to swing in retaliation. Then Council President Pro Tem Kenneth Cockrel Jr. stepped into the void.

“So, Joe, why don’t you tell us how you really feel?” Cockrel quipped. The relief of nervous laughter rippled through the chamber, and the moment of unease passed.

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