The artlessness of the Snyder administration’s approach to imposing Emergency Managers


You don’t have to be a jerk about it

Last spring when I published exclusive audio of Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris talking about crushing the unions, I was shocked at what he said and, more to the point, how he said it:

So, I’ve laid off twenty-five people. I’ve laid off nine police officers. I’ve laid off four fireman. I’ve haven’t’ done that yet but this Friday — after the townhall meeting. Oh, they know it’s comin’! They know it’s comin’! And I’ve laid off four EPW — I had nine major equipment or heavy equipment operators but only five pieces of heavy equipment. So, I laid off four EPW workers. I laid off Human Resources and payroll because we outsourced that.

So, I just wanted to wind up by just giving you some things that … and, by the way, you’ve already heard all of this but I can’t over-emphasize the fact that you need to read the charter, you need to read the collective bargaining agreements — the CBA. You’ve gotta know what you can do and what you can’t do. And I found so many holes in the fire — the police is tight — in the fire collective bargaining agreement, they don’t have a leg to stand on. The fact of the matter is we’ve got them where we want ’em!

“They don’t have a leg to stand on. The fact of the matter is we’ve got them where we want ’em.”

Nice. (You can listen to the full audio with a transcript HERE.)

Then there was Pontiac Emergency Manager and former Mackinac Center employee Louis Schimmel, nearly gloating about his “tyranny”:

MLive reporter Jonathon Oosting: Does the law hand power to tyrants?

Schimmel: I guess I’m the ‘tyrant’ in Pontiac then if that’s the way it is. For the last 20 some years, Pontiac being my hometown, I’ve met with mayors and and ocuncils over the years and I’ve told them the management they are displaying will catch up with them some day. And by mismanagement I mean they’ve negotaited union contracts that are just outrageous.

It’s this attitude of complete condenscension and near-derision that really has struck me. If you are going into an area that is struggling with offers and/or demands to help, it seems to me you’d be trying to build bridges, mend fences and create useful partnerships. It’s going to be difficult, to be sure. These are difficult situations and nobody is happy about where they are, how they got there or about taking the painful steps that are necessary to move forward. It requires leadership, diplomacy and tact.

None of these are considered qualifications for Michigan’s Emergency Managers, that much is clear.

And now, today, in the middle of a contentious and highly flammable situation in Detroit when tensions are high and people are pissed, the day after Governor Rick Snyder handed them his final ultimatum in the form of an Consent Agreement that’s little better than an Emergency Manager, the Governor chose to say this:

“You have a community that has been struggling for decades, a community that clearly needs help in terms of resources and support, so isn’t the right answer that they partner with people who want to help?” Snyder asked during a conference of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters.

“If you have a problem, is the answer to say ‘Go away,’ or is it to hold up your hand and say ‘We need help’? That’s a cultural problem they have there,” Snyder said. “The inclination so far has been to say ‘go away.’ I don’t believe that’s a good answer, and there are good people there, so it’s a cultural challenge to get over that boundary.

In the middle of a situation that so many people believe or are beginning to believe is racially-motivated, to call it a “cultural problem” seems almost intentionally provocative. When asked if race is playing a role in some of the backlash against his proposal, the Governor dodged the question, saying instead that “Detroit got into this issue not because of race but because of population decline”. The question about whether or not the response to the state takeover had anything to do with race went unanswered, but his comment about it being a “cultural problem” suggests that he believes it is so.

I don’t want to believe that Governor Snyder and his administration are racists. I don’t want to believe that the Republicans that passed this legislation are racists. But when you look at how the law has played out and the artless, insensitive things that are said along the way, you can’t help to think that they are at the very least racially clueless. They seem to have no idea whatsoever what the impacts of their actions and words are going to be.

In Flint, things are playing out a bit more smoothly. That’s in large part because Mayor Dayne Walling and Flint Emergency Manager Michael Brown get along fairly well. They have a decent relationship from the past and that connection is helping things move forward in a way that’s somewhat less draconian and undemocratic than in other cities.

If the Governor Snyder, his administration, his Emergency Managers and the Republicans who created this situation want things to move forward in a positive, helpful way, they have certainly gotten off very much on the wrong foot. I don’t know if it’s even salvageable at this point but, if I were them, I figure out damn fast how to get some bedside manner that doesn’t patronize the people they are impacting and treat them all as incompetents and/or criminals.

If Governor Snyder truly expects Detroiters and their elected leaders to “partner with people who want to help”, he’d be well advised to start acting a hell of a lot more like a “partner”.

[Photo credit: Anne C. Savage. Used with permission.]