Giving the EM a fist? Or just the finger?
Emergency Manager Backlash
Published: March 27, 2013
How big will the backlash grow to be, and will it be enough to make any difference?
That is the question we were preoccupied with on Monday as attorney Kevyn Orr assumed control of the city of Detroit. An unelected emergency financial manager — who becomes, through the magic of lame-duck legislation, an emergency manager on March 28 — Orr’s move into City Hall is by all measures a historic event.
For many residents on both sides of Eight Mile Road, it marks the moment that Detroit’s hoped-for turnaround begins. Unshackled from the bonds of politics as usual, beholden to no special interest group, focused on balancing the city’s books — Orr is poised to go for the gold in what he has described as the Olympics of restructuring.
That, anyway, is the conventional thinking.
It is the opinion held by both the editorial boards and leading columnists at Detroit’s two daily newspapers. It’s also the opinion of city leaders like Sheila Cockrel, who served on the City Council long before taking a job at Wayne State University and becoming president of a consulting firm.
“The right to vote is basic,” wrote Cockrel in a recent op-ed piece for the Freep. “But so is the right to live in peace, without fear, and without constant risk of violence. It is time for change. It is time to put democracy back together for Detroiters by first ensuring that our city can meet the threshold standard established in the Declaration of Independence…”
Cockrel’s point, we believe, is that some things are more important than the right to vote. Having streetlights that work and police who come when called is an even more fundamental right, and the need to make those things happen trumps any philosophical or emotional attachment citizens may have to actually voting. (Just ask the people of Highland Park how well emergency management worked in terms of their streetlight situation.)
What we have seen in the past year is really a “by any means necessary” approach employed by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature to gain control of Detroit.
As the city enters this new phase, it is worth providing a quick recap of how it got to this point.
It began with the passage of an emergency manager law in 2011. A previous law, known as PA 72, had been on the books since 1990, but Snyder argued that the scope of that law, as it was written, was too limited in its ability to accomplish what needed to be done. So, Snyder signed a new law in which an emergency manager was granted broad new powers that essentially permitted the assumption of control over municipalities and school districts facing “financial emergencies.”
With the threat of an emergency manager appointment dangling like a sword of Damocles above their heads, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and a majority of the City Council signed off on a “consent agreement,” ushering in several new layers of outside oversight to the city and its financial operations.
In a reaction to all this, a coalition that included organized labor, civil rights and faith-based groups mounted a campaign to overturn that new law, known as PA 4.
First, they successfully collected enough signatures to place a voter referendum on the ballot. The people of Michigan would be the ones to decide: Do we want unelected appointees with vast powers calling the shots for our cities and our schools, or do we not?
But it wasn’t that easy. Republicans on the state Board of Canvassers effectively delayed that measure from being placed on the ballot, using as an excuse the arguably trumped-up claim that headings on the circulated petitions weren’t the proper sized typeface.
So, instead of having the measure immediately placed on the ballot, supporters of the referendum had to delay their campaign, spending precious time and money fighting in court to get the referendum in front of voters.
They eventually succeeded, but not before having to go all the way to the state Supreme Court.
In November 2012, PA 4 was repealed by 52 percent of the voters.
A month later, during a lame-duck session of the Legislature, a new emergency manager law was passed. That law, PA 436, offers cities and school districts determined to be in a financial emergency four options to deal with the crisis: enter into a consent agreement with the state, go to mediation to work out a plan, accept appointment of an emergency manager, or, with the governor’s approval, file for bankruptcy.
The problem for Detroit (and other entities under the rule of an emergency financial manager on March 27) is they won’t be afforded the opportunity of choosing any of the options provided by the new law. Instead, the transition language on the new law says that if an emergency financial manager is already in place, then that person automatically becomes an emergency manager on March 28.
In addition to passing a new law that was only marginally different than the one voters just repealed, the Legislature and Gov. Snyder made PA 436 “referendum-proof” by linking it to appropriations.
In other words, having heard from voters that they didn’t want emergency managers, the state’s leaders formed a new version of the law that had just been rejected, but did it in a way that prevents any future attempts by voters to reject it again.
And what about that consent agreement — which was supposed to have taken five years to achieve the desired results? That was deemed a failure by the state — after having pushed for it and then labeling it a failure after less than a year in place.
Is this what democracy should look like?
Speaking of democracy and how it should look, News Hits ventured to the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit on Saturday to attend an organizing meeting held by the Detroit chapter of the National Action Network, a group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
> Email Curt Guyette