A vital but drastically under-reported political fight in the USA today is that of the unprecedented attacks on local democracy by the governor of Michigan. The 2011 expansions of the Michigan “emergency financial manager” law and the powers held by those appointed, by Governor Rick Snyder has led to a near-complete degradation of local democracy in some areas of Michigan. The basic premise of assigning an emergency financial manager is that an appointed specialist can assist a locale in fixing its budget issues more effectively than elected officials; this concept is not new, but it has been drastically expanded by the Snyder administration in Michigan In Michigan, wherever there is a severe budget deficit or “financial emergency”, an emergency manager can be put in charge of a city, town, or school district in order to take control and fix the crisis. In the past, such managers have been appointed over school districts and given broad discretionary powers to control spending. In 2011, the Snyder administration massively expanded the power and reach of emergency managers, while reducing oversight, accountability, and the requirements for a locale to be put under financial martial law.
Under the new financial martial law legislation, an “emergency financial manager” can be appointed over any locale declared to be in a state of “financial emergency,”; a financial emergency is a wide classification, determined entirely by the judgment of the governor, that could be something as simple as a single year where there is a substantial budget deficit. The emergency financial manager has broad powers yet virtually no accountability. He or she has the ability to relieve elected and appointed officials from duty, cut programs, summarily dissolve contracts between the state and other entities (unions, pensions, etc.), and sell off publicly owned goods to private entities.
These managers are appointed by the executive branch of the state, thus are not elected or accountable to the citizens of the state; they have no conflict-of-interest rules, nor are they accountable to any state or federal agency unless they blatantly break certain laws, (such as embezzlement, bribery, etc.). In compensation for their work, emergency managers receive six-figure salaries (Ex. The Pontiac emergency financial manager receives $150,000 annually, with benefits), which is odd, considering the fact that they are paid by “struggling” areas in need of emergency management.
Perhaps the best characterization of the entire Michigan financial manager situation came from the emergency manager of Pontiac, Lou Scimmel. When asked whether the EFM law in Michigan appointed tyrants over the population in an interview with a local radio station Schimmel answered, “I guess I’m the ‘tyrant’ in Pontiac then if that’s the way it is”. Regardless of whether or not a financial manager can actually improve a city’s financial status, the fact remains that the state government has taken virtually all power from local elected officials and given it to an appointed bureaucrat.
Apparently, with the entire furor over the White House “czars” (a media- created moniker for policy advisors), the public has missed out on Snyder’s appointment of literal Czars in cities across Michigan. In pre-USSR Russia, a Czar was an unelected bureaucrat given virtually absolute power over a locale; an emergency financial manager is merely a Czar under a different name, in a different country, and in the present day.
The primary problem with the appointment of EFMs is that they destroy the entire idea of the democratic process wherever they are appointed. Local elections are absolutely meaningless in the face of an emergency manager; elected officials have their decision-making powers revoked and, as in the case of Pontiac, are sometimes summarily dismissed. The destruction of democracy is antithetical to American values and creates massive disenfranchised areas. Democracy may be inconvenient and slow to work, but governance by dictate, as has been instituted here, is not consistent with American values.
As poorer areas are more likely to suffer budget issues and are more likely to be taken over, the poor are disproportionately disenfranchised. By virtue of living in a poor neighborhood, large swathes of Michigan’s population have control over their city taken away. Cities such as Pontiac, Flint, and Benton Harbor are currently under the control of emergency managers; these cities are all relatively poor, and majority black.
Detroit could potentially be put under financial martial law during early 2012, and if this happens, 51% of all black people in Michigan would be under emergency management. Regardless of whether this racial disenfranchisement is intended or not, it is imminent and discriminatory in an unacceptable manner.
A secondary, but vital issue is that emergency managers can be used to push an ideological agenda against the will of the people. Emergency managers can unaccountably cut pensions, nullify union contracts, defund local programs, and sell public goods into privatization, without worrying about what the public wants. As most of these policies are unpopular with the public, officials who want to push this agenda must weigh their views against the electoral backlash. Emergency managers are appointed, not elected and are accountable only to the governor, thus they can do unpopular things without worrying about public opinion; by giving a level of deniability to the governor, he can institute unpopular policy at minimal risk come election time.
Giving appointed officials huge power, with little accountability, as well as the ability to override elected officials, is antithetical to the idea of democracy. Why would the “Tyrant of Pontiac” worry about the little people whose union contract he destroys, health benefits he cuts, or schools he closes? He gets paid regardless of public outrage, and better yet, the guy who appointed him is shielded from backlash because he is not directly responsible for the policies carried out by his manager. As the governor appoints these managers, he can use them to do unpopular things without dirtying his hands.
Do we live in a country where our elected officials can appoint local dictators and nullify our votes in certain elections? No, we live in a constitutional republic, where voting is supposed to decide public representation. Dictatorship is un-American and cannot be tolerated no matter whether the dictator agrees with you or not.
For more information on this law, and the current campaign to fight it via petition and referendum, go to http://michiganforward.org/