In a tersely-worded response to the five-count legal challenge to the Emergency Manager law in Ingham County Circuit Court, the Snyder administration denied that the controversial law violates the state constitution but did not give detailed responses to the concerns raised. A group of 28 plaintiffs from towns across Michigan are suing Gov
A group of 28 plaintiffs from towns across Michigan are suing Gov. Rick Snyder and state Treasurer Andy Dillon over the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act, which allows appointed Emergency Managers to take over local governments, fire elected officials, break contracts and dissolve whole towns.
The plaintiffs argue that giving law-making power to unelected officials violates the rights of local voters and creates a new one person-rule form of government.
In a response filed last week the Snyder administration did not offer any clues as to the legal arguments they will use to justify the broad new powers given to Emergency Managers by the law.
“The Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act … effectively establishes a new form of local government within the State of Michigan. The new form of government allows Michigan cities, villages, townships, and other forms of municipal corporations to be ruled by one unelected official and that this official’s orders, appointments, expenditures, and other decisions are not reviewable by local elected officials or local voters,” the legal complaint said.
“[The law] speaks for itself and no answer is required,“ the Snyder administration said in response to that statement. “Defendants deny any factual allegations for the reason that they are untrue.”
“We are profoundly disappointed that the response of the Governor, the Attorney General and the state of Michigan to a serious challenge to a Michigan law is nothing more than a cookie cutter cut-and-paste job,” said attorney William Goodman, who represents the plaintiffs for the National Lawyers Guild. “The citizens we represent are alleging an assault on the right to vote—the essence of democracy itself. They had every reason to expect a thoughtful and serious explanation of the state’s rationale. Instead we got Legally Blonde.”
The Emergency Manager law, which cleared the legislature in just a few weeks, is already reshaping politics in local communities.
Since it was enacted in March, the manager in Benton Harbor has stripped the city commission of power and limited public use of the lake front. The manager in Pontiac has broken the city’s contract with the police dispatchers and dissolved the police department, and the manager in charge of the Detroit Public School system is redesigning the school system without consent from the school board.
Local governments and school board are using the threat of takeover by an emergency manager to try to force concessions from public workers
The Ingham County lawsuit claims that the Emergency Manager law violates the constitution by giving managers the power to repeal local ordinances, contracts and charters and by eliminating citizens’ right to vote for and petition local government on issues of local concern.
They also argue that the law allows the executive branch to exercise legislative duties — by changing local laws — and therefore violates the separation of powers.
Also, by requiring local communities to pay the compensation and expenses of managers and their staff, they say, the law violates the Headlee amendment, which bans unfunded mandates.
Though many believe that people have a constitutional right to elect their local representatives, legal opinion on the matter is divided.
Cooley Law School professor Gerry Fisher, a municipal lawyer for 25 years and professor of local government law, said he sees a problem with the plaintiffs claims about the right to local government.
Fisher said that the section of the constitution referred to in this argument ([Article VII, Section 22](“http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(ljvuzx3ikzgk0pnyiuxgfg45\)\)/mileg.aspx?page=GetObject&objectname=mcl-Article-VII-22”)) specifies that the power to have charters, adopt resolutions, ordinances and such are subject to both the constitution and the general laws of the state.
“That is the key language,“ he said. “People approving the Constitution are saying whatever power that people in cities and villages have are subject to laws of legislature.”
While people may be surprised that the Legislature would decide to fundamentally reshape Michigan’s system of local government, he said, the constitution gives them authority to do so.
Fisher said that for him, the juiciest legal issue raised by the Emergency Manager law is the question of whether Michigan can pass a law giving appointees the power to break contracts — a power usually reserved for judges in bankruptcy court.
This issue is not raised as part of the state case but it has been raised in a federal challenge to the law brought by the Detroit public employee pension systems.
Headlee Amendment expert Dennis Pollard of the Secrest Wardle law firm said the plaintiffs seem to have a point about the unfunded mandate to pay for Emergency Managers whose salaries have ranged up to $425,000 per year.
“I don’t think they are totally wrong,” he said. “It appears to be a valid claim.”
Legal analysts from all corners say the lawsuit is likely to be fast tracked to the state supreme court.
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