Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris proposes changes to City Commission

Joseph Harris, the Emergency Manager for Benton Harbor, Michigan, is proposing a couple of major changes to the make-up of the City Commission.

Emergency Manager Joseph Harris announced Wednesday he’s filed ballot language that would shrink the Benton Harbor City Commission, but widen the commissioners’ voter base. Harris said during a town hall meeting that he filed two proposed changes to Benton Harbor’s charter with the Berrien County clerk on Tuesday. The changes will be placed on the November ballot and, if they pass, would shrink the commission from nine members to five and remove the ward system so that each candidate will battle it out city-wide.

Harris said the smaller commission will make the city consistent with its neighbors, Benton Township and St. Joseph.

“I personally don’t see the benefit of nine members when we don’t perform any better than our neighbors with five,” he said.

Four of the nine commissioners have ward-elected seats. If Harris’ proposal passes, the commission wouldn’t switch to a completely at-large elected body until 2015, when those ward commissioners’ terms are up.

Because Benton Harbor is a small city, with some wards less dense than others, candidates can win with a very small number of votes, sometimes as little as 40, Harris said.

Harris also filed a ballot proposal to shorten commissioners’ terms from four years to two.

This may come as a complete surprise to many of you, but I am totally in agreement with what he is proposing. First of all, he’s putting the two changes on the ballot for the citizens of Benton Harbor to vote on, not just implementing it outright. Second, the structure of the Benton Harbor City Commission is in need of change. A town of just over 11,000 people doesn’t need wards, particularly when some ward officials are getting elected with less than 100 votes. Also, nine city commissioners is too many. It’s a recipe for getting nothing accomplished.

But I’ll tell you this: it should not be possible for him to be able to do this. Normally it takes the gathering of petition signatures to put something on a ballot. You can’t just put things up for a vote by declaring it so. However, Emergency Managers are truly “czars”. They can do what they want with nearly no limitations and that is why the repeal of Public Act 4 is so critical.

So, while I applaud these moves, I’m aghast that he can just declare them on the ballot and will still do whatever I can to make sure the Emergency Manager law is repealed for good.

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