Benton Harbor, Emergency Managers, Joe Harris, Michigan — October 18, 2011 at 10:09 am

Emergency Manager Joe Harris to leave Benton Harbor soon


In a clear sign that Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris will soon be departing his position, job postings have begun appearing for a new City Manager.

Benton Harbor has begun advertising for a city manager, a signal that the city’s state-appointed emergency manager, Joseph Harris, could be leaving the city soon.

Before Harris can go, he said the city has to find someone “with the guts to jump into the fray.”

If experience is any indicator, Benton Harbor’s new city manager – the city’s 16th in 29 years – could face shouting matches with city commissioners, a frustrating battle to keep the city’s finances on track and an unceremonious boot out the door for his or her efforts. Two of Benton Harbor’s past city managers won whistle-blower protection lawsuits against the city after they were fired.

“You’ve really got to have thick skin to work with (the commissioners),” Harris said.

But the job could look very different when the new city manager begins work.

Harris said the application and interview process could end in a new hire by January.

If changes to the city charter are approved in the Nov. 8 election, Benton Harbor’s city manager will begin work in a city where he or she has direct authority over all department heads – as opposed to the current state of things in which the city attorney and city finance director answer to the City Commission. The commission will maintain direct authority over the city manager’s job, with or without the charter amendments.


Since Harris’ appointment in April 2010, he has performed the duties of the city manager and finance director, but he expects he’ll be leaving Benton Harbor sometime in the next six months, he said.

Now that Joe Harris has done his job, it will become very clear in the coming months and years that he has failed to address the fundamental causes of what brought him to Benton Harbor in the first place. Nothing has been done to reduce poverty. Nothing has been done to help Benton Harbor citizens to become more politically-engaged, educated or prepared to lead or even select good leaders. The systemic problems of poverty and education will continue to plague this community and there’s no reason to believe that the city won’t be right back in the same place several years from now. Turning Benton Harbor into a playground for the rich, served by locals working in menial positions for low pay, is decidely not the way to solve these decades-old and intransigent problems.

The truth is, most of the financial power in the city in the hands of corporations and developers who have little incentive help the poor people of Benton Harbor. Their self-interest is most effectively addressed, in fact, by doing everything in their power to force these people to leave. The blighted areas of Benton Harbor are sitting on prime real estate and, if they were able to take these areas over, there is considerable profit to be made. In the meantime, it appears that they are using government grants and other funding sources aimed at “redevelopment” of the city to benefit their own interests rather than those who need it most. This is the primary reason red flags went up for me when Harris rejiggered the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority as one of his very first acts when the new Emergency Manager Law was enacted.

This election in November will be an intesting one. Harris exercised his chancellor-like powers and put referendums on the ballot to change how the city government is structured, a move that I support but one that I believe should not have been possible for him to do.

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.

A group of local activists are actively campaigning against the proposed changes, saying they are a power grab. I don’t understand this reasoning since the citizens of Benton Harbor will still vote for their elected officials and can make decisions about who is in charge of the city government just like other communities. This suggests to me that they are the ones interested in maintaining power. Given the history and lack of effective leadership and governance in Benton Harbor, I would think a new model would be something Benton Harborites (Harborians?) would want. Streamlining their dysfunctional city government is something they should embrace.

As I said, it will be an interesting election, for sure.

In other news, Whirlpool is laying people off around the country but won’t say how many or where. Also, Benton Harbor’s much-richer, much-whiter neighbor, St. Joseph, is rumbling about how their unionized firefighters and police officers are breaking their budget. Sound familiar? It should. The financial plight Michigan cities find themselves in after the double-blow of a economic catastrophe and decreased funding from the state are falling on the backs of our public servants everywhere. Rich, mostly-white communities are, apparently, no exception.

Adding…this is my 50th post on Benton Harbor since my first one on April 15th when Joe Harris fired the entire City Commission. Whoa.