City Finances Were A Story Before Detroit’s Bankruptcy

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The news is indeed big and deserving of attention: As of last week, Detroit is now the largest U.S. municipality to file for bankruptcy.

The news, however, is perhaps not as shocking as some would portray it. While national publications have only recently jumped on the story, Detroit’s local media have long been keeping the public informed about the city’s finances and the series of events that eventually led to filing for bankruptcy.

Accessing public records — including details about the city’s financial data, contracts, and many other datasets — has enabled the media to shine a light over the years on the city’s fiscal challenges. Outlets like Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Fox 2 News, and many others were on this story long before the news of bankruptcy woke up the media giants: capturing critical moments like when the city realized it was close to running out of cash in 2011 and press conferences by Detroit leaders in 2012 that described how allowing state intervention could help prevent bankruptcy. Continued coverage from the local media kept residents informed about what was happening, what events and politics had led Detroit to this situation, and what could come next. The potential of bankruptcy was no surprise to those who followed the process of state intervention in the city’s finances.

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With a population of more than 700,000 people, Detroit is now the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy, but it is by no means the first large city to do so. Cities like Stockton (population: 296,000), Vallejo (population: 117,000), and San Bernardino (population: 213,000) have been there, too, and the stories out of those cities can help show what to watch for in Detroit. (And, if San Bernardino is any example, other cities can show some of the particular challenges to financial information disclosure that may appear during bankruptcy proceedings.)

No two places provide an exact apples to apples comparison, however. Each city has its own history, process, and paper trail — and each needs an experienced scout to know how to traverse the political landscape and to help the public do the same. That’s why it’s so important to have access to public records (the key to understanding our political past and present) and to have watchdogs who use them to review the political process and show those in power that they will be held accountable for their actions.

National media have looked into some of the potential implications of Detroit’s bankruptcy process, noted some of the factors leading to this point, and examined what it could mean in a larger economic context. This kind of broad perspective is important, but the details are important, too — especially for those who could be directly impacted by the proceedings.

While national media outlets move on to wondering whether Detroit can be compared to Greece, local media are covering the details of the legal battles and dissecting the transparency concerns already being raised surrounding the bankruptcy process. (Emails revealed as part of a lawsuit, for example, showed the city’s emergency manager talking about the potential of bankruptcy with state officials before he was even hired. The lawsuit alleged that the emails violated the state’s open meetings law by discussing public issues in private email threads instead of in an open meeting.) Documents surrounding the city’s bankruptcy, and events leading up to it, should be disclosed to help keep the public informed about the reasoning for the decisions being made — and to allow for some accountability in the process.

As national attention fades, the watchdogs in Detroit are staying on guard. In addition to covering the latest in the proceedings, Detroit media are even peering back at the national media, keeping an eye on how the city is being covered (and, in some cases, noting how tired they are of seeing the same old tropes being used to talk about the city). They’re also continuing to cover some of the ripple effects of mismanagement by former city leaders — something you won’t find receiving national coverage. (Not yet, at least.)

Local media are often at the front line for keeping municipal governments transparent. They’re the ones who know the prologue before the big news break; the ones who, at their best, make sure that a story is told from beginning to end. These watchdogs, in Detroit and elsewhere, deserve accolades for continually keeping an eye on those in power, for being there before the national media swoop in and long after that attention is gone. Even when the wins seem few and far and distant, it’s this continual observance of government, rather than sporadic or frenzied attention, that helps to build the infrastructure of care and applied knowledge needed to create lasting accountability.

Photo by Flickr user ktpupp

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