Yesterday, I posted something here about the Emergency Financial Manager of Benton Harbor’s efforts to sell a community radio station for the paltry sum of $5,000. I saw the story as an illustration of the fact that, when it came right down to it, these Lansing-appointed replacements for our local elected officials didn’t really have good, sustainable plans for how to turn around the communities that they were being forced into. Their clear goal, I argued, wasn’t to facilitate the creation of new jobs, and salvage what could be salvaged, but to sell what could be sold, at fire sale prices, while gutting public services and breaking union contracts. And, the fact that, in the case of Benton Harbor, they were selling assest for as little as $5,000, it seemed to me, made it clear that they were trimming as close to the bone as one possibly could. (As someone noted, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw office supplies taken right off the desk of Benton Harbor’s City Clerk and put on Ebay next.) While I didn’t say that the Emergency Manager system was technically illegal, I did mention, as I had in the past, that the result, whether intended or not, was that many Michiganders no longer had the ability to vote for their own local representation. (Our friends at Eclectablog recently calculated that close to half of all black Michiganders now, thanks to this system, have been denied the opportunity to vote for local representation.) At any rate, the post triggered a number of comments on whether the Emergency Manager system is itself illegal, and I thought that I’d move one of the comments, left by Ypsi’s former City Planner, Richard Murphy, to the front page, in hopes that might generate some good discussion. Here it is.
Not to throw gasoline on a fire–well, okay, kinda sorta for that purpose–but I’m curious to know where the “right” to have municipal government made up of officials elected by the local residents comes from, such that the Emergency Manager system would be “illegal”.
Pretty sure it’s not in the US Constitution. Nor do I know that I’d call it any kind of natural right (though that would be an interesting question–would it mean that anybody who lives in an unincorporated area in states that have such thing is having their natural rights violated?).
Also pretty sure it’s not in the State of Michigan Constitution. All that document says, to my knowledge, about local cities is The legislature shall provide by general laws for the incorporation of cities and villages. Such laws shall limit their rate of ad valorem property taxation for municipal purposes, and restrict the powers of cities and villages to borrow money and contract debts. Each city and village is granted power to levy other taxes for public purposes, subject to limitations and prohibitions provided by this constitution or by law., in Article VII, Sec. 21 — seems like that leaves it up to the legislature to determine how these incorporated cities and villages are managed.
Finally, I’d note that a good many cities in Michigan are in fact already in the hands of appointed managers: under the council/manager form of government, the elected officials do not actually have control of the day-to-day operation of the city, or any ability to direct city employees — they appoint, not elect, a professional City Manager who handles all of that. How many people here are mortally morally offended by the presence of a City Manager, an appointed/unelected official, running our city? (Generally, this is considered a “progressive” system, in the classic sense of the term: reducing the opportunity for corruption in local government by insulating city staff from meddling elected councilmembers and placing them instead under the guidance of a professional.)
I’m not trying to express either support nor disapproval of the Emergency Manager system–just to note that I can’t see any merit in arguments for the “right” to local elected government or that emergency managers are somehow “illegal”.
Here’s my take on it… It may not be illegal, but it’s clearly wrong. Just like I know that it’s wrong for the federal government to hunt down and kill American citizens without trial, I know it’s wrong for the State to step in and unilaterally dispose of local community assets without the input of the citizenry. You can argue all you want, and post links to the Michigan constitution all day long – that doesn’t make it any more right. Michigan has turned its back on its middle class, and its poor, and those living in its aging urban communities, and now we’re begin offered this false dilemma… Should we allow our cities to go bankrupt, or should we send in an Emergency Manager to ease us peacefully into death. I maintain there’s another solution – one that doesn’t involve cutting taxes on the rich to the tune of $1.65 billion dollars, and instructing our poor to spend the winter in tents.