Benton Harbor is a city we've failed: The incredible audacity of EFM Joe Harris (w/link to AUDIO)

I have been writing pretty intensively about the dismissal of the Benton Harbor City Commission by the Emergency Financial Manager, Joe Harris. Like many of you, I am incensed at this draconian step being taken, a disenfranchisement of the residents of Benton Harbor and an abridgement of what I think most of us understand as democracy. Taxation without representation is what led to the American Revolution and yet, here, today, in my state, we have an entire city that is now taxed without being represented by its elected officials, thanks to the actions of a Republican Congress and a Republican Governor, Rick Snyder.

But, let's face it, Benton Harbor is in deep trouble and has been for a long time. It's the poorest city in Michigan. Upwards of 40% of its population is below the poverty line. Their city officials are failing them miserably with waste and poor management and very bad decisions. Their Finance department didn't have a single accountant in it, they had exorbitant bank fees due to shoddy bookkeeping and they haven't funded their city pension program in five years.

And Benton Harbor didn't get this way recently. It's been in real trouble for decades. While it's neighbor, St. Joseph, has flourished and prospered, Benton Harbor has been in a death spiral for a very long time. It is a city that has been failed by its leaders, by its state and by both Democrats and Republicans for far too long.

So, something simply must be done. It's a time for draconian measures.

But I refuse to believe that we must relinquish our values as Americans and abandon democracy to get there.

Last Friday night, Rachel Maddow hit the nail on the head.



What's new here is that this state has decided that local elections, locally elected officials are a problem that has to be done away with, that democracy is in the way of fixing problems in the United States now, of making things more efficient, particularly in poor places. Not that democracy IS the way we fix problems but that democracy IS the problem and it therefore needs to be side-stepped for efficiency's sake, for our own good -- Governor knows best.

This week a columnist with the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote a thoughtful and smart column that frankly was really critical of me, really critical of us for our coverage of the takeover of Benton Harbor. The columnist's name is Julie Mack and she wrote in response to our coverage, "What's worse for Benton Harbor: A financial manager with dictatorial powers or an utterly dysfunctional city government?"

Hmmm…Dictator or Dysfunction? Dictator or Dysfunction? Only two options? Really?

Neither option is acceptable and those truly are the only options being presented to Benton Harbor right now.

Last February, the State of Michigan held a training session for future Emergency Financial Managers. At the end of the two-day training was a panel discussion titled "Lessons Learned". The panel had some former EFMs along with current EFMs, a mayor and a vendor providing Human Resources outsourcing. Each of them talked about things they had learned along the way. As I listened to the EFMs, I actually got the sense that they really did want to help the cities and school programs they were responsible for onto a good footing and leave them in good, sustainable shape. Then Benton Harbor Joe Harris spoke and he said this:

The EFM order, an "order" or directive, has the force of law. It is the same as a resolution or an ordinance so you're running the city. You are the mayor. You are the Commission. You have taken over from them so just in case you're wondering why they don't like you too much. You've taken that authority away from them and they will challenge you every step of the way and they will try to use the community, try to get the community against you. By the way, I'm having a town hall meeting tonight at six o'clock and we're going to talk about public safety and we have to keep the community aware of what's going on. I have a newsletter that I get out every two or three weeks. We've got that because we can't get it out through the commission meetings. They're not going to let me talk and they're going to berate me at the commission meetings so I don't attend them.

There was a comment made earlier, and just for your information, the ONLY place in the Act that requires that you do something in consultation with the Commission is when you prepare your annual financial report. You don't have to do ANYTHING with these guys. And, I would love to, but I know -- I know the individuals and I know what their motives are and the fact of the matter is anything I do they're going to try to undermine me. So the fact of the matter is, the City Manager is now gone -- I am the City Manager. I replaced the Finance Director. So I'm the Finance Director and the City Manager. I am the Mayor and I am the Commission and I don't need them. All I need is the expertise. And that's why Mario is providing Human Resources and payroll for me. I've got Plante & Moran helping with the Accounting. I've got Miller Canfield working with us on the labor issues, with real estate, with regard to -- really P.A. 72 issues -- "What can I do, what can't I do?" -- Understanding how far I can go before I've crossed the line.

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. My assessor retired so we didn't replace him.

But, long story short, besides the…one hundred and fifty thousand dollars from the rubbish contract -- one and half million dollars -- take those twenty-five people and just say an average compensation, total compensation of sixty thousand -- You've got one and half million there. So, I lost two million dollars I've pretty much offset that already. Because I've already, I saved a hundred thousand dollars on insurance, four hundred fifty thousand, put it out for bid, three hundred and fifty-six thousand this year. The rubbish, the telephone -- AT&T just would not cooperate. That's okay, they've got competition so Quest is now in providing the telephone service.

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!
You can hear the exclusive audio segment at Eclectablog.

This is not what democracy looks like. This is not how someone coming in to help a city acts or speaks or even thinks. There are other ways. If the city officials of Benton Harbor are engaging in criminal acts, then arrest them. If they are simply bad managers, then they need to be taught to be good managers. We need more than one person to come in and save Benton Harbor. We need a consolidated effort utilizing a plethora of methods to improve the city, educate the voters, streamline the governance and to put things right. Not one man trying to solve several decades of failure in a couple of years of near-dictatorial control. And putting someone in place like Joe Harris who speaks about the city he is responsible for in these terms and with this attitude is a recipe for utter failure.

If we continue to see Benton Harbor as having only two options, we will continue to fail its residents. Only when we get serious about treating the entire problem, addressing the systemic malfunctions that have brought it to where it is today will be begin to do right by that city. Divvying up the shorefront properties to the highest-paying developer will not solve the problem. Building bigger and better and more luxurious golf courses and condos and equestrian centers and water parks will not solve the problem. We must address the poverty and the poor education and the other root causes or Benton Harbor will forever be an embarrassing example of how we fail our poor cities. We simply must be better than this.

Cross-posted from Eclectablog.com.

Don't forget that there is rally in Benton Harbor from noon to 3:00 this Wednesday, April 27. More details HERE or on Facebook.

End the Silence March and Rally
March/rally in Benton Harbor, Michigan in response to the usurping of the rights and democratic process of their city government and their citizens by empowering a non-elected Emergency Financial Manager to take over the day-to-day operations of Benton Harbor.

Meet at the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce located at 38 West Wall Street and then march to City Hall.

Speakers include Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero
Live coverage by Ed Schultz and MSNBC

Other events
Saturday, May 7 10:30 am Benton Harbor
Protest Snyder and Upton at the Blossom Time parade

Monday May 16 11:30am – 2:00pm Grand Rapids
Amway Grand Plaza Hotel- 187 Monroe Avenue NW, Grand Rapids, MI
The Economic Club of Grand Rapids is listing an event on May 16th where Snyder will be speaking.