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Metro Detroit's "Big Four" talk Fouts, infrastructure, transit

The Big 4 on the big screen at Cobo Center. Left to right: Mark Hackel, L. Brooks Patterson, Mike Duggan, and Warren Evans.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
The Big 4 on the big screen at Cobo Center. Left to right: Mark Hackel, L. Brooks Patterson, Mike Duggan, and Warren Evans.

Metro Detroit’s “Big Four” had their annual public gathering at Detroit’s auto show today.

The four leaders are the Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb county executives, and Detroit’s mayor. It’s usually a mostly feel-good conversation about regional cooperation.

And indeed, they did talk about that and a range of other issues. But the leaders also couldn’t avoid the topic of the hour: Warren Mayor Jim Fouts.

Leaked audio tapes seem to show Fouts making incredibly degrading comments about African-Americans and disabled people, among others.

Fouts claims the tapes were faked. But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says if that’s so, Fouts needs to take action.

“If what Fouts is saying is true, and somebody faked his voice and put out a tape, somebody committed a felony,” Duggan said.

“He needs to go to the state police today and file a report. It’s a very easy thing to do if he’s telling the truth. And if he doesn’t go and file a criminal charge, he needs to resign immediately because it means he’s lying.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a political nemesis of Fouts, stopped short of calling on Fouts to resign. But he did call for a federal investigation.

“I think the Justice Department ought to come in and take a look and make a determination,” said Hackel, who admitted that he leaked one of the tapes in question on behalf of an employee who claimed to have recorded it. “They’re going to at least give the person who did the taping an opportunity to come forward without worrying about retribution.”

Hackel called the recorded comments “absolutely unacceptable” and dismissed the suggestion that the tapes might have been faked or substantially altered “incredible.”

Among the other topics of discussion at the event:

Infrastructure. All three county executives named infrastructure upgrades as a top issue facing the area. And it’s not just roads and bridges.

A sinkhole that opened up in Macomb County last month, the result of a collapsed sewer interceptor, has brought the issue to the forefront.

“It’s a multi-billion dollar challenge before us,” said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. “That one sinkhole is going to cost that community about $100 million. And that’s going to happen all over southeast Michigan. The infrastructure’s old.”

“Infrastructure is a critical ingredient,” said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. “We’re way behind the eight-ball in terms of infrastructure work. And that’s for the next decade, I think, going to be a very significant thing.”

Not discussed: how these needed upgrades would be paid for.

Regional transit. The leaders discussed the future of transit in the region, after voters narrowly rejected a proposed four-county, 20-year transit “master plan” and $3 billion millage in November.

Macomb County was the most opposed to the plan, but Hackel insisted that Macomb voters are not against the concept of regional transit. “They just voted against the plan,” he said, suggesting that future transit upgrade proposals should be “more incremental,” and perhaps leave out the reliance on Bus Rapid Transit along major corridors, which is what the rejected plan had proposed.

Patterson was less amenable to a renewed transit push, saying the plan’s supporters “failed miserably to make their case.” He suggested there’s actually little demand for transit services, but transit advocates “convince each other there’s pent-up demand for public transit. Then when they go to the ballot box, it’s not there.”

Duggan disagreed to an extent, noting that with upgrades, ridership on Detroit buses has increased by 100,000 in each of the last two years. “When it’s done right there’s significant support,” he said, adding that there’s a need to merge the region’s current fragmented transit providers.

The Trump administration. All four men suggested they were open to “partnership” with the incoming administration, especially if it proves serious about investing in infrastructure. None was more enthusiastic than Patterson, the only Republican on the panel (who also sported socks with Trump’s face on them on stage).

Hackel noted the key role that Macomb County played in Trump’s Michigan and national victory, saying he had predicted that outcome after Trump won the Republican primary. While Hackel endorsed Hillary Clinton, and admitted he had doubts about Trump’s chances as election day neared, he also “had this feeling that something was up with the public” that gave Trump an advantage.

“The people are speaking not so much because they like his [Trump’s] character, but because they’re tired of what’s going on in politics, the partisan aspect of politics. That’s how Macomb County voters voted,” Hackel said.

Wayne County jail. Evans’ predecessor in Wayne County, Robert Ficano, left office with a new jail project abandoned mid-construction because of cost overruns.

Evans said “getting that deal done would be the biggest albatross I could get off of my neck in the coming year.” He said that while the county will go through a fresh bidding process for contractors, it appears the best option is to proceed with the project as planned. “It looks like we’ll finish on the existing site,” Evans said. “No question that’s the least expensive option, and it looks like that’s coming together.”

Downtown Detroit real estate magnate and Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert has campaigned for Wayne County to abandon the current site, suggesting it as an ideal location for a possible Major League Soccer stadium.

Duggan hasn’t taken much of a public position on the issue, but seemed to express some cautious support for Evans’ position.

Evans “is the former Wayne County Sheriff who ran the jail,” Duggan said. “He knows more than anybody about how it should be sited, where it should be built. And I’m entirely confident he’s going to make the right decision.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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