Signs of progress in Benton Harbor: preparing for the departure of Emergency Mgr Joe Harris


A couple of weeks ago, Michigan Radio reported that Benton Harbor mayor-elect James Hightower held an informational meeting for City Commissioners and Benton Harbor City department heads to prepare for the departure of Emergency Manager Joe Harris. A further story today suggests that Hightower and the newly elected commissioners are taking the return of their city to democratic rule very seriously and are intent on ensuring that Benton Harbor doesn’t follow the same path as other Michigan cities that once had Emergency Managers. As I reported last week, all three cities that once had EMs are again in financial trouble; Flint, Hamtramck , and Highland Park.

From the Michigan Radio piece:

Elected officials don’t know exactly when or how Harris will leave, but they’re getting ready anyway.

Benton Harbor’s new mayor James Hightower’s mission of bringing city leaders together began with breakfast. Bacon, eggs and cheese kicked off a recent daylong city commission retreat at Benton Harbor’s only remaining sit-down restaurant; appropriately named The Ideal Place.

They listened to hours of lectures on the importance of strategic planning and setting goals. They got a lot of advice from Darnell Earley.

“You can do one of two things,” Earley told the group, “You can take and build on the successes working as a team. Or you can do like they did in Flint.”

Flint is under the control of an emergency manager for the second time in the last 10 years. A state review team found city leaders were not following plans to eliminate the city’s deficit and were frequently short of cash.

Benton Harbor City Commissioner Juanita Henry says no one wants to see that happen here. “I tell them to pray and give time, a little time and everything will be open. We’ve got a new set of commissioners thank God. And it’s a new day in Benton Harbor,” Henry said.

Benton Harbor City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad and others think a team of people to help with the transition of power is important to avoid another state takeover – like what’s happened in Flint.

“This will afford us the knowledge and the opportunity to avoid some of those pitfalls and put preventive measures in place so that we don’t have to return to a undemocratic form of government,” Muhammad said.

Some have criticized new Republican legislation that would establish a transition team and when I wrote about it recently, I characterized it as a bill that would ensure that cities under the control of an EM would remain under state control. However, properly implemented with the involvement of local, democratically-elected officials, such a team could be an essential part of making sure cities like Benton Harbor don’t return to financial martial law once the EM leaves.

One of the problems with S.B 865, however, is that it doesn’t require this transition team to include anyone from the local government. Here’s the relevant section of S.B 865 as passed by the Senate:

Sec. 5. (1) Before removing a local government from receivership, the governor may appoint a receivership transition advisory board to monitor the affairs of the local government until the receivership is terminated.

(2) A receivership transition advisory board shall consist of the state treasurer or his or her designee, the director of the department of technology, management, and budget or his or her designee, and, if the local government is a school district, the superintendent of public instruction or his or her designee. The governor also may appoint to a receivership transition advisory board 1 or more other individuals with relevant professional experience, including 1 or more residents of the local government.

The bill allows for it but does not require it. It should require it. If there is going to be further state involvement in the running of the city, local, democratically-elected officials should be part of any transition process. The fact that it’s not required is troubling.

Nonetheless, I am encouraged by Mayor Hightower and his proactive steps to ensuring a better future for Benton Harbor. They have some new city commissioner and it is my hope that the state will put as much effort into helping train them to be good leaders as they did to institutionalize the disenfranchisement of poor and poorly-run communities. I have said in the past that “Benton Harbor is a city we’ve failed”. Now is the time to do right by them.

Godspeed, Benton Harbor. I wish you well.