Benton Harbor, Joe Harris, Michigan — April 19, 2011

MI Gov. Rick Snyder’s takeover of Benton Harbor tied to shoreline development – what Rachel missed


Last night on her show, Rachel Maddow connected some very important dots in the situation that led up to the Big Government TakeoverTM of Benton Harbor, Michigan by Joseph Harris, aka “The Czar of Benton Harbor”.

But she didn’t connect ALL of them.

In her piece we learn these facts about Benton Harbor and its twin city next door, St. Joseph.

St. Joseph Benton Harbor
Population 8,508 10,235
Demographic 89.5% white 85.5% black
Per capita income $33,034 $10,235

We also learn that one of the best parts of Benton Harbor is Jean Klock Park, donated by wealthy benefactors years ago with the stipulation that it be used for the public good and that it remain “the children’s” park.

We also learn that Whirlpool, in an effort to recycle some old manufacturing land on the shore of Lake Michigan, a brownfield, if you will, decided to build a $500 million golf course & residential development, Harbor Shores, on its land, part of which would heavily impact Jean Klock Park. Note that Whirlpool pulled its last manufacturing out of Benton Harbor in March of this year, driving the final economic stake into the heart of this otherwise depressed area.

We also learn that the Emergency Financial Manager bill (pdf) that allowed Governor Snyder to take over Benton Harbor’s government was sponsored by Al Pscholka. Al Pscholka has some interesting characteristics:

  • He is the former aid to Congressman Fred Upton who is a Whirlpool heir
  • He represents the area that includes … wait for it … Benton Harbor
  • He is the former vice-president of a development company responsible for building Harbor Shores.
  • He was on the Board of Directors for a nonprofit involved in the Harbor Shores development

There is one dot, however, that Rachel Maddow did NOT connect. As I wrote about yesterday, one of the first things that Joseph Harris did was to fire a number of people on both the Planning Commission and the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority in Benton Harbor and replace them with people he hand-picked. These two commissions are the ones most intimately involved in decision-making about real estate development in Benton Harbor. They will decide who gets permits, what developments will look like and who gets to pick the ripe plums present in Benton Harbor. And they are now staffed largely by people chosen by the Czar of Benton Harbor.

This is where the rubber meets the pavement. If you are looking for motivations for Snyder and his Republican friends to take over Benton Harbor, watch who gets development rights of the Lake Michigan shoreline. They are already setting things up to ensure that it is not the local residents of Benton Harbor.


  • Tempers flared at last night’s Benton Harbor City Council meeting:
    “Somebody is about to go and it about to be Joe,” one Benton Harbor resident vocalized to commissioners.

    “He’s not even an elected official and he’s going to fire the mayor? How are you going to fire a mayor,” another resident questioned over Joe Harris’ newly established power.

    “Adolf Hitler was a dictator. Now we have a dictator in Joseph Harris. We have allowed this man to be too comfortable in our home, in our city,” one man screamed out loud.

  • Whirlpool is dangling a $200,000 bribe over the heads of the city residents.
    Despite holding an open meeting to garner public input on how to use the $200,000 donation, Whirlpool officials will hold off on awarding it until Benton Harbor city leaders and Emergency Financial Manager Joseph Harris are able to agree on how to use it.

I’m just sayin’…

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  • C M Baker

    In the law that Michigan’s legislature wrote increasing the power of the existing EFM law, this phrase is frequently found as the reason a financial crisis requires a State takeover of local government : “local government (must) be able to provide current and future capability to PROVIDE NECESSARY GOVERNMENTAL SERVICES ESSENTIAL TO THE PUBLIC HEALTH, SAFETY AND WELFARE. The public needs to be reminded that Michigan lawmakers deliberately choose to equate competent government exclusively with financial solvency, not with local prosperity. Direct intervention was based on balancing the books of a financially strapped entity, not balancing the relationship between job seekers and job opportunity.

    In the EFM law this phrase (see above) is used as the end goal, the desired effect to be achieved . The ability to provide necessary governmental services essential to the public health, safety and welfare is touted as the blessing at the end of the tunnel.

    If that is the basis of the law, isn’t it fair to judge the state government’s decisions using the same benchmark?

    What actions did the Legislature include in this law or any since to draw prosperity into financially strapped cities, villages and school districts and did those actions bring about a sustained ability for entities that were taken over to provide necessary governmental services on a sustainable basis? Was this law written in a way likely to achieve that goal? Moreover, did this law, as written, achieve the stated purpose of sustainable services necessary for public health, safety and wefare everywhere it was used? If the State claims success, let them bring it forward for public analysis.

    What actions under the EFM accounted for any claimed change in prosperity which demonstrably has allowed the original captive residents or the original captive entity to be able to meet the goal of providing necessary governmental services? Were these actions obtainable using less autocratic methods? Did the sale, transfer, assignment of concrete assets benefit other local governments more, proportionately, than the captive government? Did the financially strapped entity lose assets, or lose the full economic benefit of assets when EFMs sold or transferred or traded them, thereby lessening the captive entity’s ability to emerge from financial insolvency or, once freed, remain capable of sustaining necessary government services?

    There is a curious section in the EFM law that makes a special provision about a public utility furnishing light, heat or power. These cannot be “sold or transferred” without voter approval. Why was water not included? If a public utility furnishing light heat or power was “owned” by a captive entity, why couldn’t water or water rights be “owned” as well? That would require a voter approval too, but water was not included in the protection. Or was the law speaking about public utilities as consumed by residents who lived in the captive community? Was the provision giving special voter protection to public utilities – protections which limited the power of the EFM to arbitrarily pick and choose which utility would have access to the customers of captive communities, supposed to act as a protection against loss of their consumer power? If that is what the Legislature was thinking, why was the water supply not included?

    There is a provision requiring contracts of over $50,000 to be subjected to a competitive bid. If the EFM submits the contract to the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary has the power to authorize removal of the competitive bid requirement. Did the transfer to the Flint River as a water supply involve any kind of bid process? What part of a bid process might speak to the requirement of any water supply used as a result of the bid process? Did any of the EFMs in Flint have any input at all for or against using the Detroit water supply? Did any of the EFMs have any input pro or con in the choice of Flint River as an interim water supply? If yes, what? If yes, how did that impact on the outcome?

    The law requires the financially insolvent captive entities to pay for all the costs of a EFM – salary, benefits, travel, and that same requirement applies to the expenses of the EFM staff. Worse, the law immunizes EFMs from the costs of defending themselves if something goes wrong under their watch. The local captive government must pay for the defense of the EFM or EFM staff. This has to be one of the greatest blunders in law-making. Do you know if any of the impacted EFMs are using or thinking of using that provision to pay for any costs of their participation in the investigations so far?

    This is important to investigate. The reasons are apparent to all of us.

    But I have one more to add. This is an example of Republican Jim Crow. It is based on the mistaken notion that good government is reached only through financial procedures. It uses a legalized captivity of local government to permit power to be held by the Governor or his appointees. Financial punishment is used to enforce budget balancing decisions untested by analysis or voter authority. The faked concern for public health, safety and welfare is too tragic for words. This is Republican Jim Crow, enslavement to the mastery of an untalented, blemished Governor and State Legislature and now ready to be applied not just to African Americans but to all races, as long as they are poor.