Detroit, Emergency Manager Law, Emergency Managers — September 23, 2014 at 8:52 am

The clock is running out on Michigan’s anti-democratic Emergency Managers


On December 12, 2012, just a few weeks after the General Election, Michigan legislators passed the bill that would become Public Act 436, the latest iteration of Michigan’s anti-democratic Emergency Manager Law. Voters had overturned the previous version of the law in November and Republicans wasted no time in resurrecting it, overturning the will of a majority of voters and interfering with the democratic process.

When Gov. Snyder was asked recently to defend this outrageous act, he answered this way:

Actually, what we did was look at some of the key issues and concerns that were clear about the public vote. That got to the point of how long someone was in the position and did the community have other options to choose. So, we modified the law to take those into account. So, what we did was look at, okay, here are the issues, here are some of the primary criticisms and put that into account of having a new law to go forward.

His absurd and disingenuous assumption is that voters overturned the Emergency Manager law for these two reasons alone. They did not. Nonetheless, these two items were addressed in the new law and an 18-month limit was put in place so that any municipality or school district under the control of an Emergency Manager can vote to remove them after the 18 months has passed.

Here’s the exact language:

Notwithstanding section 7(4) and subject to the requirements of this section, if an emergency manager has served for less than 18 months after his or her appointment under this act, the governing body of the local government may pass a resolution petitioning the governor to remove the emergency manager as provided in this section and allow the local government to proceed under the neutral evaluation process as provided in section 25. If the local government has a strong mayor, the resolution requires strong mayor approval. If the governor accepts the resolution, notwithstanding section 7(4), the local government shall proceed under the neutral evaluation process as provided in section 25.

Public Act 436 went into effect on March 28, 2013. That means that next week, on September 27th, any municipality or school district that was under the control of an Emergency Manager when the law went into effect may vote to remove them from their position. That would be these:

  • Allen Park
  • Detroit
  • Flint
  • Detroit Public Schools
  • Highland Park Public Schools
  • Muskegon Heights Public Schools

Hamtramck, under Emergency Management for a second time, will be at the end of its 18-month window on December 10th. The city of Flint is also in its second round of Emergency Management.

The Snyder administration is taking the approach that any new Emergency Manager has 18 months to do his or her work. This is an important distinction in the case of Detroit Public Schools because Jack Martin was appointed as a new Emergency Manager on July 15, 2013. If that date is used, Martin still has until mid-January of 2015.

As John Philo, an attorney with the Sugar Law Center, put it in a piece in The Detroit News (no longer available online), Snyder’s interpretation means that all he has to do is appoint a new Emergency Manager every 17 months to keep the municipality or school district under state control.

“I would say there isn’t any grounds for that new, creative idea” that each subsequent manager gets another 18 months, Philo said. “(Snyder) could remove them and replace them at 17 months each time.”

Herb Sanders, the attorney for the DPS Board, went further in a recent piece about the Detroit Public School Board’s decision to vote Martin out, saying that under this perverted interpretation of the law, “The governor could then continually appoint EMs within the DPS as long as he removed or replaced each appointment prior to the expiration of the 18 months.”

The Snyder administration’s position on this is clear:

Michelle Brya, an assistant state attorney general, wrote in court filings that the board can’t remove Martin until January, when his 18 months end.

A hearing to determine which interpretation is correct is scheduled for October 1st in Ingham County Circuit Court.

The Detroit City Council is weighing its options, as well.

Discussions are intensifying over the removal of Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s emergency manager before the end of the month, but city officials said Monday that he’s likely to stay on in a role that maintains his authority over the city’s bankruptcy case.

One of the final unresolved issues about Orr’s departure is exactly what powers he would keep in his new role. A central question: If Detroit’s bankruptcy judge were to order major changes to the city’s plan to emerge from Chapter 9, would Orr have enough power to see those changes through without approval of the mayor and City Council?

“It’s all technical issues like that,” Councilman Andre Spivey said Monday as he and other council members and Mayor Mike Duggan prepared to hash out details on the transition of power back to local elected officials as the 18-month mark of Orr’s tenure approaches.

The council will meet in a private session Tuesday afternoon to discuss its options for terminating Orr’s term. The council has not yet reached a consensus. But some members say they are ready for Orr to go.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is ready to take back control but sees an ongoing role for Orr as the city’s bankruptcy attorney as the bankruptcy process that is currently underway plays out.

The Snyder administration seems to be playing fast and loose with the rules layed out by the law. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that they planned this all along and that the Gov. Snyder’s rhetoric that Republicans “modified the law” to address Michigan voters’ concerns about “how long someone was in the position” is/was a smokescreen to pacify opponents when their real intention was to make the imposition of an appointed Emergency Manager as open ended as they choose.

Gov. Snyder’s handling of this issue has been ham-handed and careless from the start. He and his colleagues have been patriarchal and domineering, showing little compassion or even awareness for the myriad issues that create financial emergencies in municipalities and school districts, generally blaming the problems on mismanagement and corruption by local officials without addressing the core problems of poverty, the collapse of the manufacturing bases of these areas, and an incessant disinvestment in urban areas and public schools across the state.

If we could solve these issues by simply cutting budgets, outsourcing services to private, for-profit companies, and breaking union contracts, cities like Hamtramck would have had their problems solved long ago. Instead, Hamtramck and Flint continue to be in a financial emergencies and in their second rounds of Emergency Management, and the other cities and school districts under Emergency Management will find themselves back in the same situation before long. That’s because the core problems that created these emergencies have not been addressed and, in some cases, they’ve actually been made worse.

It’s time Michigan lawmakers wake up and realized that we need a new round of urban renewal for our aging manufacturing cities and investment in schools in a meaningful way. This MUST be an effort that includes the participation of the residents in the area and ensures that they aren’t pushed to the side as developers and investors come in to pick over the bones of their struggling city centers to enhance their own bottom lines.