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Michigan citizens take emergency manager law to court citing unconstitutional power grab

July 3, 2011

by the Sugar Law Center

Rev. Edward Pinkney leads a mass march on Aug. 10, 2010, against the opening of the golf course, sponsored by Whirlpool, which still treats the Black town of Benton Harbor like a company town even though it has shut down all manufacturing operations there. – Photo: Daymon Hartley
Lansing, Mich. – Citizens from across Michigan announced June 22 they are taking Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law to court, filing a lawsuit that charges Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature with implementing an unconstitutional power grab that effectively silences citizens.

“The emergency manager law is a shameless power grab by Lansing politicians and their cronies who want to take away the will of the people,” said Kym Spring, Grand Rapids plaintiff. “The only people who benefit from this dangerous law are those who want to wage vendettas against their political enemies so they can pursue their own narrow political agendas, not the needs of the people. Michigan deserves leaders who can come together to fix our problems. Instead, we have an unconstitutional law that takes away people’s rights and local decision-making.”

In March 2011, the Legislature approved and Gov. Rick Snyder signed Michigan Public Act 4 (PA-4), a new law that gives the governor’s office the power to appoint so-called “emergency managers” for any of a broad, vague set of criteria. These emergency managers can then take over the entire operations of local communities or school districts, replacing elected officials.

Emergency managers have nearly unlimited, unilateral and unchecked authority, from making and changing all local laws to selling off public assets and saddling local taxpayers with debt without their approval to laying off workers and repealing collective bargaining contracts. Local taxpayers must pay for these emergency managers, ranging from $11,000 a month for the manager in Benton Harbor to around $33,000 a month for the manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

The citizens’ lawsuit, filed against the State of Michigan in Ingham County Circuit Court, says the emergency manager law violates the Michigan Constitution by:

  • Suspending home rule by giving managers power to repeal local laws, ordinances, charters and contracts
  • Effectively eliminating citizens’ rights to vote for and petition local government on matters of local concern
  • Violating the separation of powers by allowing the executive branch and its agencies to exercise legislative duties
  • Allowing the Legislature to enact unfunded mandates by using local taxpayer dollars for such purposes as managers’ salaries and staff

The Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice is serving as the lead counsel for the 28 citizens. Sugar Law is joined by attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights, The Sanders Law Firm, Miller Cohen PLC, and Goodman & Hurwitz PC on behalf of the Michigan National Lawyers Guild.

“Lansing politicians, along party lines, rammed through a law that gives politically motivated managers unprecedented powers to silence local communities and citizens,” said Edith Lee-Payne, Detroit plaintiff. “This law is not about fiscal responsibility. It’s a power grab that robs taxpayers of their money and freedom.”

“This law is not about fiscal responsibility. It’s a power grab that robs taxpayers of their money and freedom.” — Edith Lee-Payne, Detroit plaintiff.

“This unfair, unconstitutional and unnecessary law takes away the rights of hardworking people who play by the rules,” said John Philo, legal director for the Sugar Law Center. “PA-4 establishes a new form of local government, unknown anywhere in the United States, where the people in local municipalities are governed by an unelected official who establishes local law by decree. It’s a backdoor way to end collective bargaining and effectively silence local firefighters, police, teachers, nurses and anyone who serves the public and provides essential local services.”

“At a time when every community is struggling and tightening their belts, what Michigan families need and deserve are real solutions from Lansing,” said Tameka Ramsey, Pontiac plaintiff. “Instead, they now face bagmen from big banks who will end services and cut jobs with zero input from local families.”

The Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice leads a coalition of top lawyers in representing citizens across Michigan who have come together to challenge this unconstitutional law in court. The Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice is a national nonprofit public interest law center, dedicated to defending the rights of working people and their communities. When people anywhere in the U.S. face workplace or social injustice, the Sugar Law Center and its broad network of cooperating attorneys provide representation to enforce their legal rights. Learn more at www.democracyemergency.org.

Benton Harbor emergency manager wants you off the lawn, off the beach

by Laura Conaway, The Rachel Maddow Blog

Sign at the entrance to Jean Klock Park beach
The thing about living in Michigan and having an emergency financial manager take over your school district or your town is that the emergency manager really does have dictatorial power. If that person says your school is closing, then it’s closing, unless that person changes his or her mind.

In Benton Harbor, a mostly Black and poor town with an emergency manager [all the cities taken over by emergency managers so far are predominantly Black – ed.], folks are just waking up to an order the manager issued on May 4 that restricts access to the public waterfront park. Jean Klock Park was deeded to Benton Harbor in 1917 “in perpetuity.” Part of it has been turned into a luxury golf resort, with the help of an economic development group that until recently included the sponsor of the emergency manager law on its board of directors.

Under the new order, first reported by the Michigan Messenger, people will be able to use the park only between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. – no more early morning walks along the lake. What’s more, emergency manager Joseph Harris has decreed: “The annual season during which Jean Klock Park is open begins on each May 1 and ends on the following Sept. 30, inclusive.” That would appear to mean that “in perpetuity” could stop in the fall and pick up again in the spring.

Jean Klock Park is dedicated to the children of Benton Harbor, who are entitled access to it all day every day. The park, over 3,000 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline, was given to the children of Benton Harbor in perpetuity in 1917 in memory of the little daughter of J.N. and Carrie Klock, who had died. J.N. Klock said at the park’s dedication: “In taking an inventory of life, we all take stock of the circumstances surrounding the happiest moments. The giving of this park to the city of Benton Harbor has been to Mrs. Klock and myself the happiest moment of our lives. The deed of this park in the courthouse of St. Joseph will live forever. Perhaps some of you do not own a foot of ground; remember then that this is your park – it belongs to you. Perhaps some of you have no piano or phonograph; the roll of the water murmuring in calm, roaring in storm, is your music, your piano and music box. The beach is yours, the drive is yours, the dunes are yours, all yours. It is not so much a gift from my wife and myself; it’s a gift from a little child. See to it that the park is the children’s.” – Photo: Diane Bukowski
Friends of Jean Klock Park say it had been open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. year-round. Park advocate Clellen Bury has posted a letter to Mr. Harris suggesting that the park has been closed off because of preparation for upcoming athletic events, including a Senior PGA tournament next year. The new order violates both the deeding of the park and the city’s lease with the golf resort, the advocate writes. The message includes this: “As my tax dollars are being used to pay for your salary, I would appreciate a full and prompt response to the concerns and points I have raised in this letter.”

But Mr. Harris need answer to no one in Benton Harbor. He has stripped the local elected officials of all but their most ceremonial powers. Benton Harbor is now run by one state-appointed person. Over on Eclectablog, you can find a critique of the emergency manager law from a Tea Party perspective – I recommend reading it.

This story previously appeared on The Rachel Maddow Blog and Voice of Detroit. Thanks to the Voice of Detroit for the photos.

 

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