DETROIT — After much debate, the Detroit City Council has agreed to sign a $1.8 million contract with a private firm to repair between 4,000 and 5,000 of the city’s streetlights. City Council members had delayed signing the contract because of concerns that the contractor, Genesis Energy Solutions, would take jobs away from the city’s union employees.

But there are just too many broken lights out for the public lighting workers to handle. An estimated 9,000 streetlights across the city no longer function, and this reportedly has some residents scared to leave their houses at night. “We need to get assistance,” Mark Petty, director of Detroit’s Public Lighting Department, told the Detroit News. Not only do many bulbs need to be changed, but some streetlights need complete refurbishing.

While Genesis Energy Solutions was not the lowest bidder on the contract — a Kansas City contractor submitted the lowest bid — Victor Mercado, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said the Kansas City contractor did not have enough experience for the job.

Mercado may have been correct. Still, the News has since reported that Genesis is a donor to a charity organization established by, and closely connected to, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The charity was described by the News as “shady,” because more than half of the organization’s money pays salaries to three people close to the mayor: his wife, his sister and the wife of his close friend and aide. The relationship of Genesis to the mayor’s charity may be only a coincidence, but all parties would benefit if they took care to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

The string of spring thunderstorms in May 2004 also revealed massive shortcomings in Detroit’s lighting system. Schools were forced to close no fewer than four times due to power outages. The Detroit Public Schools canceled classes so many times this past spring that state Rep. Marsha Cheeks introduced and helped pass an amendment to Senate Bill 1069 to allow schools that are canceled for more than 30 hours due to power, water or sewage problems to be exempt from the state requirement for a 180-day school year.

The new contract might pave the way for the city to sell its electrical power system. In 2001, the Michigan Privatization Report published an article entitled “The Power to Privatize,” detailing the benefits and feasibility of selling Detroit’s public lighting department to the private sector.