Monday, December 12, 2011
Thomas Shevory, Ithaca College
A fair amount of attention has recently been given to Republican Governor Mitch Snyder of Michigan’s move to place a number of Michigan cities under emergency financial management. This possibility has long existed in the state, but it has been strengthened as Public Act 4, under which appointed managers have the authority to void union contracts, dismiss elected officials, and dissolve municipalities entirely.
Four cities, including Flint and Pontiac, have already been subject to the law's provisions, and Detroit, the largest city in Michigan, may be next. If Detroit were to subjected to a takeover, more than 50% of the African-American population of Michigan would no longer have democratic control over their local governments.
The equal protection ramifications of this are obvious, and the Justice Department is taking a look at the state's actions. At the same time, an attempt is under way to have the law repealed under referendum, with nearly all of the necessary signatures having now been collected. Given this threat, the state legislature is drawing up a new version. The governor's popularity, it is worth noting, has fallen to less than 20%.
Reading about his recently, I was reminded of an excellent film by Liz Miller, that we screened as part of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival a few years ago, about the earlier version of the law as applied in Highland Park, Michigan.
Henry Ford bought 160 acres in Highland Park in 1907 to construct his first automobile plant, and in 1913 it became home to the world's first conveyor-based assembly line. The birthplace of mass production has fallen on hard times in the last couple of decades, as jobs left, population declined, the the tax base eroded. The Waterfront tells the story of the appointment of Emergency Financial Manager Ramona Henderson-Pearson to oversee the city's budget.
Henderson-Pearson looked around to see what of value the city had to offer and decided to sell the city's public water supply to a private operator. As with most privatization schemes, the two-fold aim was to raise money and to apply private sector "efficiency" principles to formerly public sector operations.
The result was a version of Cochabamba on Lake Erie. Rates were raised, and draconian measures were implemented to collect bills. In some cases, residents were sent bills as high as $10,000. Given leakages and aging water meters, the accuracy of readings was highly suspect. If residents didn't pay, they were subject to losing access to water and, in some cases, foreclosure.
The community's citizens rose up, under the leadership of, local-resident-turned-activist, Valery Johnson. And when it was learned that she was being paid $250,000 a year for her services, Henderson-Pearson was forced to resign. The city regained public control over its water works.
Under the old statute, city officials kept some oversight, so there was a check on managers, as well as a democratically elected structure that could retake control when the managerial system collapsed. In the new regime, elected officials may simply be fired.
The Waterfront is a cautionary tale about what occurs when local citizens are deprived of their democratic rights in favor of supposed managerial expertise and efficiency. The problems of the rust belt are deep and long-running, but they can best be solved by more democracy, not less.
Monday, December 5, 2011
July 25, 2011
This posting is part of an occasional series, based upon a bicycle tour around the Great Lakes, starting with Lake Huron.
I dropped my car off at the Sarnia train station about 8 am. The parking lot was virtually empty. I just hope the car's there when I return. My guess is that a 1994 Volvo 240 Station Wagon is not an attractive target for car thieves. And this is Canada, after all, which has a lower crime rate than the U.S. Still, you never know.
I spotted a The Bicycle Shop, as I was riding up along the St. Clair River to the Blue Water Bridge to cross over into the U.S. Somehow, I'd forgotten my jersey and figured I'd pick up a new one. One of the guys at the store commented on my S & S couplers. I had them installed after I bought the bike, an old Gary Fisher, used. I discovered them online in my quest to find a decent fold-up. The fold-ups intrigued me, but I was never entirely convinced one would meet my needs.
I chose the S & S route, where a bike shop will cut your frame in half and install metal couplers that can then be unscrewed to break the bike down, primarily (at least in my case) for airplane travel. I couldn't find a local shop that would do the work, so I shipped it to Belinky Bicycles in Philadelphia.
The procedure cost around 400 dollars, but it was well worth it. Now, in its case, the bicycle meets airline specifications for normal sized luggage. Also, in the process of dismantling it for travel, you, by necessity, learn a great deal about how everything fits together. It can be a little time-consuming, although I have gotten better over time.
When I told the shop owner that I was headed to the U.S. to bicycle around Lake Huron, he said that I wouldn't be able to ride across the bridge. He suggested that I consider another route, thirty miles south to take the ferry. This didn't strike me as an attractive option. It involved a detour that would add a day to the trip. But he also said that might be able to hitch a ride across.
The St. Clair River is only about forty miles long. It connects Lake Huron with Lake St. Clair, which in turn connects with the Detroit River, which feeds into Lake Erie. These two rivers together constitute the world's busiest waterway, carrying freight primarily from west to east, including chemicals, coal, and iron ore.
Situated in what is still one of the most heavily industrialized areas of the U.S., the river bears more than its share of environmental burdens and threats. These include chemical contamination, sewage, zebra mussel and purple loose strife infestations, and falling water levels. A decrease in winter ice cover, due to climate change, poses future problems as well.
A man behind the desk at the bridge office told me he'd take me across once he finished his bagel. But, while munching away, he remembered a problem with his truck. He called over across the river and learned that someone from the Michigan Department of Transportation needed to make the trip over and would give me ride on their way back.
As I sat waiting outside, one of the toll workers noticed the couplers and commented on them. He told me that they brought cyclists over all the time. There used to be a sidewalk, but, when a major rehab widened the lanes, it was eliminated. The large joints on the roadway were dangerous to cyclists, because they could catch a tire, especially when it was hot.
When the Michigan DOT worker arrived, I was happy for the lift. Riding a bicycle on the sidewalks of large, high bridges, with heavy traffic, has never been one of my favorite things to do.
Once over and through customs, I stopped at a gas station to get a map. On my way out, a guy in a pickup asked me where I was headed. He said envied me. "I've put 50,000 miles on a bike," he told me. "But I can't ride them any more since I messed up my shoulder." It turned out, he injured it severely when he slipped on some ice. He said he'd been considering a recumbent. I told him to go for it.