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The ABCs of the Michigan Emergency Manager law, its history and details

With the filing of a state lawsuit to challenge the state’s Emergency Manager law, formally known as the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act, we thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at how this controversial law came to be.

On Jan. 1 of this year, Rick Snyder was sworn in as governor along with the newly elected state legislature and the Republicans had full control of all three branches of the state government. Passing a law giving unprecedented new powers over cities and public school systems to state-appointed Emergency Managers was clearly a top priority. It was passed, in fact, as Public Act 4 — the 4th bill signed into law by Gov. Snyder.

Before the legislature had even voted on it, Gov. Snyder was already on the defensive about the enormous powers granted to Emergency Managers in the bill. He told one reporter that the expansive language of the bill may not reflect the way those powers are actually implemented and he promised “a good dialogue with organized labor about what’s going on and how we can do this constructively.”

That message seems not to have reached the state’s unions, who organized a massive protest at the Capitol on March 16 — the very day that Gov. Snyder signed the bill into law. Leaders of all the major unions joined politicians and activists in railing against the Emergency Manager law in front of a crowd that may have reached 10,000. 11 people were arrested as that protest wound down for refusing to leave the Capitol.

It took little time for the law to have an immediate impact on the ability of unions to fight for the interests of their members. Local unions were forced in the first few days the law was in effect to make deep concessions in hope of preventing the appointment of an Emergency Manager, which might result in their negotiated contracts being voided entirely.

The implications of the new law were still being recognized after the bill was passed. Because of the nearly unlimited powers of the new Emergency Managers, it soon became clear that they could even sell off a city or county jail and privatize local law enforcement functions.

A week after the law went into effect, Rep. Mark Meadows asked Attorney General Bill Schuette to issue a formal opinion on the constitutionality of various parts of the law. Schuette refused to do so, despite a state law require him to issue such an opinion when requested by a state official.

Response to the law from concerned citizens was swift. A campaign to repeal the bill began almost immediately as people around the state began to organize. The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking to find out how much of a role conservative advocacy groups had in drafting the legislation.

While opponents of the law were organizing their efforts, the Emergency Managers already in place wasted no time in putting their newly gained powers to use. Robert Bobb, who was at the time the Emergency Manager for the Detroit Public Schools, announced on April 15 that he would use his authority to void union contracts and his office immediately sent layoff notices to all 5,466 members of the teachers union.

The very same day Joseph Harris, the Emergency Manager in charge of the city of Benton Harbor, issued an order stripping all authority from elected boards in that city, including the city council. That order would provoke massive opposition and bring the attention of the national media to the realities of the new law. Rachel Maddow did several shows in the days that followed focusing on the controversy.

And in Pontiac, the Emergency Manager voided that city’s contract with the police, disbanded the entire police department and had the county sheriff take over law enforcement there.

On April 20, the first lawsuit was filed challenging the law. Two pension boards from the city of Detroit filed a suit in federal court seeking to invalidate the provisions allowing an Emergency Manager to disband or remove power from publicly elected bodies and individuals.

Meanwhile, the situation in Benton Harbor continued to spark protests. Jesse Jackson wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune calling for the people to speak out against the elimination of democracy in that city. A few days later hundreds of people gathered in Benton Harbor to protest the takeover and a recall campaign for state Rep. Al Pscholka, who represents the area and sponsored the bill, was announced.

Facing more protests, Pscholka withdrew from participating in the local Blossomtime Parade in early May, but Gov. Rick Snyder kept his commitment to be there. He was met by hundreds of protesters from all over the state, who followed him along the entire route and shouted messages to him the whole way.

The day after the parade, groups opposed to the law filed petition language with the State Board of Canvassers seeking to repeal it. They would need more than 160,000 signatures to put the matter on the November ballot. If they succeed at gathering those signatures, the law would be suspended until the vote can be taken. Michigan Forward, one of the groups filing for the repeal, said they had more than 500 people volunteer to circulate the petitions.

It also quickly became apparent that many more Emergency Managers could be appointed soon because of the number of school districts in financial peril. Snyder released a list of 23 school systems with deficits of more than $1 million, 18 of them in Metro Detroit, all of which could have an Emergency Manager appointed. But many rural schools in Northern Michigan are also at risk.

Critics argue that the Republican leadership in the state may be deliberately setting up school districts for needing Emergency Managers. They note that the deep cuts in school funding in next year’s budget, passed by the Republican-led legislature and signed into law by Snyder, will only push more school districts into the red and make it more difficult for them to operate. That, in turn, makes the appointment of an Emergency Manager more likely.

As the weeks have gone by since the passage of the bill, more and more controversy has been generated. The Emergency Manager in Pontiac hired a company to run the city’s water treatment facility that has been indicted on felony charges for their management of a similar system in Gary, Indiana. Benton Harbor’s EM was criticized for ignoring a local program to help bring fresh produce to city residents who have little access to fresh fruit and vegetables. The former Emergency Manager of Highland Park was ordered by a court to pay back more than a quarter million dollars he had taken from the city treasury to pay himself.

This week the repeal campaign officially kicked off and organizers report that it has been a great success so far. Thousands of volunteers began to circulate petitions. The group in Traverse City said that they were already 1/3 of the way to their full goal for the 120-day circulation period by noon of the first day.

And that is the story of how we got to this point. Stay tuned to the Michigan Messenger for everything you need to know about this issue as it continues to unfold.

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