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Kevyn Orr: Leading Detroit on its path to better governance

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Robyn Burleson

On October 15, the Price community welcomes Kevyn Orr to campus as part of the Leading from the West speaker series, in partnership with the USC Price Athenian Society’s Dean’s Speaker Series. A litigator with over three decades of experience, Orr served as the Emergency Manager of the City of Detroit, appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, which held over $18 billion in debt, and oversaw the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Orr has extensive experience in the realms of bankruptcy, organizational restructuring, and crisis managemeKevyn Orrnt in both the public and private sectors. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, he practiced litigation at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and joined the Resolution Trust Corporation as assistant general counsel, where he managed bankruptcy matters and high-profile cases such as Whitewater, an investigation into the real estate investments of President Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Whitewater Development Corporation.

Kevyn joined Jones Day LLP in 2001 as a partner within the firm’s bankruptcy and commercial litigation practice and provided counsel on the Chrysler LLC bankruptcy and the National Century Financial Enterprises bankruptcy.

In 2013, Orr was appointed the herculean task of rescuing Detroit from the brink of financial collapse. As Emergency Manager, he organized meetings with key players in the city’s economy to get a better grasp on the problems that plagued the community. Citizens voiced worries over alarming statistics such as the city’s 11,000 arsons a year, a dramatic population decline of more than a million people over the past 60 years, and police response times that averaged more than 50 minutes. 78,000 of the city’s buildings sat vacant, and crime rates continued to rise. As quoted in the New York Times, Orr concluded, “The city’s operations have become dysfunctional and wasteful after years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices and, in some cases, indifference or corruption. Outdated policies, work practices, procedures and systems must be improved consistent with best practices of 21st-century government.”

Orr continued to meet with members of the community to hear their concerns and ideas for possible ways to improve the situation. In July 2013, after numerous hearings before a federal judge to determine whether Detroit was eligible for bankruptcy, Orr filed for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy on the behalf of the city in the hopes that the restructuring of the city’s debt would provide the basis for renewal and economic revitalization. As a result, Detroit reduced its overall debt by $7 billion, and Orr created a $1.7 billion revitalization plan to reorganize city operations.

Furthermore, Orr successfully placed the city’s art under protection within a public trust and mitigated cuts to retiree pensions and benefits. Municipal services were streamlined, and he oversaw a voter-led initiative to restructure the city council to include a more powerful community voice through district-level council representation. Through this new system of broader representation, USC Bedrosian Center Director Raphael Bostic notes, “Detroit is looking to the future and improving the quality of governance.”

Earlier this summer, a group of 15 students from the Price school traveled to Detroit to participate in an academic lab as part of the LEAP program. Students explored social, environmental, and urban issues and partnered with two nonprofit organizations to assist wDetroit student group Summer 2015ith real world projects. Working with Presbyterian Village, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing options for low-income seniors, students developed ideas for the use of an empty industrial building on one of the organization’s properties. Students also worked with Michigan Community Resources, an organization that provides services to improve quality of life in low-income communities, to find innovative solutions to revitalize the Mt. Elliot Corridor, a 3,000 acre corridor with more than 600 acres of vacant and underutilized land.

Students took note of the growing prevalence of urban farming within the city. Students spoke with members of Neighbors Building Brightmoor, an organization of neighbors who work together to develop green space and increase engagement in community planning. Donnajean Ward, one of the leaders of the LEAP group, describes, “We saw first-hand how these urban farms can build community–a neighbor and community organizer hopped on the bus to tell us about various projects and state resources for urban gardening, another organizer joined us to talk about the group of intellectually disabled adults who work in one of the community gardens as therapy and, in addition to the gardens, we saw lots of artwork on display, mostly the handiwork of neighborhood children. Make no mistake, Brightmoor still has more challenges than kale but the positive impact of community gardening/farming were evident.” Students noticed that many of the new urban farms sit on sites of demolished high rises in the downtown area, a trend that highlights the increased growth and revitalization within the community.

Detroit continues on its path to better governance and a more sustainable future, thanks to the management of Kevyn Orr. Join us for this exciting speaking event! For more information about the Leading from the West speaker series, click here or email [email protected].

Bedrosian Center