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 At the same time, an attempt is under way to have the law repealed under referendum, with nearly all of the necessary signatures having now been collected.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.