UPDATED: And so it begins. Emergency Financial Mgr. fires entire government of Benton Harbor, MI.

As you probably know, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder recently signed legislation passed by the Republican-dominated House and Senate that gives State-appointed Emergency Financial Managers (EFMs) historically broad and sweeping powers. These new powers allow the EFM to cancel or modify contracts (including with unions) and even to fire the municipality's government.

Today, for the first time, an EFM did just that. According to a press release from the Michigan AFL-CIO, Joseph L. Harris, EFM for Benton Harbor, Michigan issued "an order prohibiting all action by all city boards, commissions, authorities and other entities, except as authorized by the emergency manager."

Here is the press release in total:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Takes First Step to Strip Away Rights
Joseph L. Harris issues an order prohibiting all action by all city boards, commissions, authorities and other entities, except as authorized by the emergency manager


CONTACT: Jesse Sipe 517-515-3242

In the wake of a bill that was signed into law with high objection from the people, as it was a bill that threatened local communities, schools, townships, and municipalities, the first order has been officially issued in Benton Harbor. Joseph L. Harris has used his emergency manager powers to “exercise any power or authority of any office, employee, department, board, commission, or similar entity of the City, whether elected or appointed.” In addition, the Emergency Manager has the power to supersede any officer or entity and the power to act on behalf of the city.

“This is sad news for democracy in Michigan. It comes after the announcement of Robert Bobb in Detroit ordering layoff of every single public school teacher in the Detroit Public School system,” says Mark Gaffney, President of Michigan AFL-CIO. “With the stripping of all power of duly elected officials in Benton harbor and the attack on Detroit school teachers, we can now see the true nature of the Emergency Manager system.”

This is a real life instance of taking away our fundamental rights. In fact, the only thing City Boards, Commissions, Authorities or other entities may do without the approval of an Emergency Manager is to:

1) Call a meeting to order
2) Approve of meeting minutes
3) Adjourn a meeting

Everything else is under the Emergency Manager’s control. These new powers are taking away the will and voice of the people by stripping away the rights of public officials elected by Michiganders. By exploiting the current crisis situation, these emergency managers are able to ascertain unreasonable rules to completely control a city. This is a true case of political over-reach, and will simply add to the hardships of an already suffering populace in Michigan.


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Harris's order can be viewed HERE (pdf).

This is a complete disenfranchisement of an entire community, an entire large city in my state. The voters are now denied the ability to be governed by the people they elected in a democratic election.

This is nothing short of an abridgment of democracy in raw form.

I will have more as this develops. I can only assume a lawsuit will be forthcoming. The news is so fresh it has not yet hit the major news outlets.

UPDATE: the ACLU is investigating.

DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, April 7, filed 13 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking records regarding Public Acts 4-9, the new emergency manager law passed in March. 

In a press release, ACLU Director Kate Moss observed news reports that estimated over 100 local governments are potentially in a state of ‘fiscal watch’ and 40 school districts or charter schools are in deficit while another 150 are in danger of going into deficit.

Moss says the implications for the state are potentially enormous and questioned the passing of the law.

“Our elected officials have painted the issue with broad brush strokes and these FOIA requests seek the details,” she said.

Interesting statistic: Benton Harbor is 92.4% African American with an annual median household income of $17,471 with 42.6% of the population below the poverty line. St. Joseph, the next city south of Benton Harbor on the shores of Lake Michigan and just on the other side of the Paw Paw River is 90.3% white with an annual median household income of $37,032.

UPDATE 2: Two updates, actually. First, I have received several comments emails protesting my use of the word "fire" referring to the government officials in Benton Harbor. This is a fair criticism and it is true that these officials have not been actually fired; they still are in the positions they were elected to hold. However, they have been EFFECTIVELY fired since they are unable to actually do the job they were elected to do. Also, it is pretty clear that Benton Harbor is a financial mess. Nearly half of its population is below the poverty line and many have indicated that the government officials are corrupt, inept or both. I understand that and agree that there may be a role for the State to come in and intervene in a limited way to help set things right. But to essentially dismiss the entire city council is draconian and anti-democratic in the extreme. Democracy and its outcomes are often ugly. That's a plain fact of life. Sometimes we have to deal with the outcomes of that ugliness. It's not for the Governor or his appointed lackeys to unilaterally fire the government officials; that is the citizens' job and that is exactly why we have elections.

As far as my use of the word "fired", I'm a lefty political blogger trying desperately to fight back against the right wing smears and spins that permeate our media space. If using a very small amount of exaggeration helps me to spread the message, I will do that. The fact that my website has had over 5,000 hits on this piece and over 2,100 shares on Facebook, I think I was successful in that and I am comfortable with using the word "fired". The only difference between them actually being fired and what transpired this week is the fact that they still have the positions they were elected for, even if they are unable to actually perform the required tasks.

Second, I have been asked to give everyone a heads up about an upcoming event in Cincinnati that needs as much exposure as possible. Here is the note I received:

As you may know, much of the rush of right wing legislation in the states comes from a single source: American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

I am part of a group of activists trying to call out ALEC at their spring meeting in Cincinnati. We have a demonstration planned outside the hotel that they are meeting at, and teach ins about alternatives throughout the city. This happens on April 29th. We are trying to get people to come in from all over. We can help locate housing for out of town folks. Our website is at: http://seeyouincincinnati.com/

We're trying desperately to get the word out that this is going down. And honestly, it's one of the few ways that people who have been affected by this surge of right wing legislation can have a big impact in small numbers. We are hoping to force ALEC into greater transparency on their donors, elected members, model legislation, and influence on state legislation through our actions. The bigger the number of people we put on the ground in Cincy, the bigger the impact. And there are already plans under way to carry this fight on to ALEC's fall meeting in New Orleans.

From their website (excerpted):

What Is ALEC?
They meet in secret. They write our laws. And they want us silent.

On March 15th, University of Wisconsin Professor Bill Cronon posted a study guide on his blog on the history and actions of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). He asked: What is behind the “sudden and impressively well-organized” wave of right-wing legislation targeting workers, students, women, immigrants, and the environment in state legislatures? He found that all roads led to ALEC.

ALEC is a conservative think-tank run by right-wing politicians and corporate and financial interests within the banking industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the big oil and gas industries, and others. They are aligned to many right-wing and conservative interests, including the election-manipulating Koch Industries.

What Are We Doing?

A diverse group of Ohio activists has organized a day of resistance. We are students, labor leaders, academics and others. This protest has been personally endorsed by NOAM CHOMSKY, and he has said he is “very glad to hear about what you are doing” though he is unfortunately unable to attend.

On April 29th, ALEC will hold their spring task force meeting in downtown Cincinnati. This is when and where they will cook up the next offensive on the American public. At noon, we will hold a mass protest action in a public space (Fountain Square) one block from ALEC’s meeting place. We are also organizing housing for visitors traveling to Cincinnati, and we are securing spaces for organizations to hold their own teach-ins and actions.

Please visit their website for more information and to learn how you can participate/help.

I'm just sayin'...

Cross-posted at Eclectablog.com.