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Its relevance reduced, Detroit council picks new leaders

Detroit's Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr talks to members of the media outside the Detroit Newspapers building about the report he de
Detroit's Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr talks to members of the media outside the Detroit Newspapers building about the report he de

By Nick Carey and Steve Neavling

(Reuters) - Detroit's shrinking and largely powerless city council selected new leadership on Tuesday as some members insisted the body is still relevant despite an order from a state-appointed emergency manager that two vacant council seats be left empty.

"The council still has a very vital role to play in the city," said newly chosen council President Saunteel Jenkins. "As elected representatives of the people of Detroit, it's our responsibility that their voice be heard."

Two members of the city council have quit and emergency manager Kevyn Orr recently stripped former council president Charles Pugh of his post and pay after Pugh missed council meetings. Orr ordered the council not to fill the two vacant posts that would have brought the elected body back up to its full complement of nine members.

Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, appointed Orr in March with sweeping powers to tackle the city's massive $18 billion debt problem. After offering creditors pennies on the dollar last month, Orr has said the city has a 50/50 chance of avoiding bankruptcy.

Among the many tasks that have fallen to Orr is dealing with an elected city council, whose authority has been superseded by the emergency manager's sweeping powers. The council still does handle some of the city's day-to-day functions.

The council on Tuesday also chose Andre Spivey to serve as president pro tem, a position vacated by Gary Brown so he could work as an aide to Orr. Councilman Kwame Kenyatta resigned last month.

Critics of Orr's appointment have branded him a dictator, but he has won some praise for working with the council and, with the recent exception of Pugh, maintaining their pay.

"Kevyn Orr did absolutely the correct thing" by telling the council not to appoint new members, said Sheila Cockrel, a member of the city council from 1994 to 2009. "Lord knows Detroit doesn't need any more political drama."

The city's population has fallen to around 700,000 from a peak in 1950 of 1.8 million. In the November election residents will elect new members from individual districts rather than citywide as they have done for nearly a century. Those new council members will serve for four years. Orr's tenure is due to end in the fall of 2014.

"The city will get its government back after Orr leaves," said Bill Ballenger, a longtime pundit and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics.

The remaining council members will serve until December 31. An election for a new council will be held in November.

During Tuesday's meeting, council member Kenneth Cockrel, who briefly served as mayor in 2008, indicated he too may leave before his term expires.

(Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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