Michigan’s Emergency Managers were supposed to fix corruption and ineptitude. They haven’t.


The primary justification for Emergency Financial Managers or Emergency Managers in Michigan from the very earliest iterations (and continuing through to today) is that some cities and school districts were just too full of corruption and ineptitude and that the state needed to swoop in and save the day.

However, this easy answer has turned out not have been the silver bullet its proponents had promised it would be. In fact, cities and school districts with Emergency Managers aren’t doing much better now than they were before.

In 2011, Pontiac’s Emergency Financial Manager Lou Schimmel outsourced the city’s water treatment to a company facing 26 felony Clean Water Act violations. A half a year later, residents were reporting problems with water contamination. Shortly after that in January of 2012, Schimmel signed an agreement with Oakland County to manage monies from a substantial HUD grant. Had Gary Peters, who was then the Congressman representing the area, not intervened, it would have resulted in a loss of upwards of $800,000 per year for Pontiac.

Detroit Public Schools was dealing with a $137.1 million deficit when Robert Bobb took over as the first Emergency Financial Manager in 2009. Six years and three Emergency Managers later, DPS is struggling with a $238.2 million deficit today. In other words, their financial system hasn’t gotten better, it’s gotten considerably worse.

Also in Detroit, John Covington, the former Chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority – Detroit’s “School District for Misfit Schools” – quit under a cloud of scandal when it was revealed that under his “leadership”, the EAA had spent nearly a quarter million dollars on travel, gas, a chauffeur for Covington, and furniture. These financial irregularities along with the epic mismanagement of the EAA which has been well-documented here and elsewhere eventually led Covington to resign in disgrace.

The EAA has had other issues, as well. This past summer we learned that, under their new Chancellor Veronica Conforme, the EAA was cheating teachers out of incentive pay required by $11.5 million worth of federal grants totaling that they had received.

More recently, a state-appointed Emergency Manager in Flint carried through with a plan that removed the city from the Detroit water supply, replacing it with Flint River water. The more corrosive river water began leaching lead out of pipes, effectively poisoning the entire city with lead resulting in elevated lead levels in the blood of school children and costing Michigan taxpayers $9.35 million to solve the problem. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of eventual costs that will be racked up in order to “save money”.

This week we got even more evidence of the failure of the Emergency Manager model in Michigan in two separate instances. First, following an FBI investigation, Kenyetta Wilbourn-Snapp, a former principal in the EAA’s Mumford High School, admitted to tax evasion and taking a $58,000 bribe.

In a separate story, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former $18,000-a-month chief academic and accountability auditor for Detroit Public Schools, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for funneling no-bid contracts with the Chicago Public School system to former employers in exchange for kickbacks. She has been charged with 23 counts of federal corruption. Based on this federal indictment, Byrd-Bennett’s tenure at Detroit Public Schools is now be investigated, as well. Turns out some of her co-conspirators in Chicago were the beneficiaries of no-bid contracts she oversaw in Detroit, too.

Make no mistake: when money is involved, there will be corruption and scandal and crime. And there can be incompetency in any city. But the Emergency Manager law trumps democracy by replacing elected officials with unelected, state-appointed “dictators” who call all of the shots. This draconian move is needed we’re told, because, without it, the school district or municipality won’t be able solve their own problems because they’re just too full of corruption or incompetence.

In other words, we’ve traded democracy for efficiency.

The problem with this is now evident: Emergency Management has NOT solved the “incompetence and corruption” problem. We still have incredibly bad decisions being made (it takes a really bad decision being made to poison an entire city’s population with their water supply) and we very clearly still have corruption and criminal activity going on. Having an Emergency Manager in charge hasn’t moved the dial in any perceptible way.

And, in some cases, it’s actually making matters worse.