Duggan may use emergency powers after City Council rejects paratransit services contract

Mayor Mike Duggan is poised to tap his emergency powers to put a paratransit contract in place after the city received a notice that it was violating federal law.

The Federal Transit Administration sent a letter to Detroit Department of Transportation Director Mikel Oglesby on Nov. 17 indicating the city has an obligation to provide paratransit services under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Failing to do so would expose DDOT to enforcement by federal authorities and a loss of federal funding. In a Nov. 30 letter to Oglesby, the agency urged DDOT and city officials to resolve the issue through a special City Council session.

Council spent weeks debating whether to approve a new five-year contract with Transdev. Riders and advocates urged council members to vote on a shorter contract after dealing with mishaps, such as wrong pickup and drop-off times. However, that could have opened up the city to legal challenges. Oglesby emphasized that if the contract were voted down, the city would have to restart its bidding process, which could take three to six months.

Council members narrowly passed the contract on Nov. 22, their final session before recess. But Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero sought to reconsider the decision, which ended in a 4-4 vote. Without a majority in favor, the vote failed. Member Scott Benson was not present for the vote. It was unclear whether they would reconvene or leave the matter to Duggan.

More:Detroit City Council votes down nearly $50 million paratransit contract

Councilmember Fred Durhal III, who chairs the Disability Task Force, urged Oglesby to ensure more accountability but continued to support the contract to protect the 70% of services that it would have covered.

"After the vote failed, I made a motion to request a legal opinion of where we stand with the FTA. One of my main contributing factors for voting 'Yes' for the contract was that I wanted to ensure the city of Detroit remained compliant with the Federal Transit (Administration) and didn’t want to jeopardize our status with the FTA nor jeopardize services being cut 70%," Durhal said.

Failing to provide the service can also lead to U.S. Department of Justice investigations. Council members and staffers received both letters but voted down the contract after several paratransit riders and transit advocates spoke against the subpar services through Transdev. The French-based transportation company currently runs the city's paratransit services, but under the proposed new contract the city would have been responsible for much of the oversight.

Duggan is working with city lawyers and multiple departments on the matter. He is expected to announce his plans on the matter this week.

"With this in mind, and City Council out on vacation until after the holidays, Mayor Duggan is exploring every emergency option possible to ensure paratransit service is not interrupted as federal law requires," said Stephanie Washington, chief of staff to the mayor.

At an affordable housing announcement on Monday, Duggan slammed the City Council for being "dysfunctional," Axios Detroit reported. He told reporters that there was no explanation to reject the contract and that he would be seeking further action.

Council President Mary Sheffield, who voted in favor of the contract, said in a statement to the Free Press that Duggan's choice of words is "a false narrative, shameful and highly inappropriate rhetoric directed towards a duly elected body."

"It is truly a travesty to arrive at a point that a fellow elected official deems it necessary to attack members of Council for faithfully discharging their duties and representing their constituents. Despite the divisiveness, I remain vigilant and committed to finding solutions versus creating media soundbites and sowing more dissension in the City," Sheffield said.

Oglesby previously told the Free Press that the city would have to restart its bidding process, which could take three to six months.

Dana Afana is the Detroit city hall reporter for the Free Press. Contact: dafana@freepress.com or 313-635-3491. Follow her on Twitter: @DanaAfana

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Duggan may use emergency powers on paratransit services contract