The immediate causes of the water-contamination crisis in Flint and the hazardous conditions of Detroit’s public schools are by now common knowledge: the poor, shortsighted decisions made by the emergency managers appointed by Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder. Far less known are the numerous warning signs of the dangers posed by these unaccountable EMs to the people of Michigan—signs that Governor Snyder chose to ignore. The resulting tragedies were thus not only foreseeable, but entirely preventable.
Enacted in 1988, Michigan’s original financial-distress law—which simply authorized the state to involve itself in the affairs of local governments facing a “financial emergency”—was rarely used. Then, in 2005, the right-wing think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy advocated that law be broadened to grant EMs the power to take over all aspects of local government, including the power to unilaterally reject collective-bargaining agreements, and to insulate EMs from any resulting legal liability. By 2011, Snyder had been elected governor, and Republicans had taken control of both the State Senate and House. One of their first orders of business was to dramatically expand the law along the lines proposed by the Mackinac Center. The EM law soon came to be seen as a vehicle for corporate privatization, with a 2011 New York Times investigation revealing that EM training sessions were “run primarily by representatives from companies who stand to benefit financially.”
As EM appointments increased sharply due to state-imposed cutbacks in local revenue-sharing as well as the impact of the Great Recession, numerous red flags were raised. The Michigan Department of Treasury’s own internal analysis highlighted the law’s overreach, concluding: “This bill allows emergency managers too much power and control over local units of government. Emergency managers can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the local unit and will use the enhanced powers granted under this bill for their own gain.” Professor Kenneth Klee, one of the nation’s preeminent experts on bankruptcy, wrote that the law “is violative of [the US Constitution’s] Contracts Clause…. No prior legislature has had the audacity to legislate the unilateral termination, rejection, or modification of a collective bargaining agreement.” Voting-rights expert Jocelyn Benson, the current dean of Wayne State Law School, found that “there is significant evidence [that the] amended Emergency Financial Manager law has disproportionate impact on the state’s Black and Latino population.”
The appointment of EMs with the power to usurp local elected officials proved to have a significant negative impact on minority communities and their votes, with more than half of the state’s black voters subject to governance by EMs since 2009. Emergency managers have run cities with large African-American populations, such as Highland Park (94 percent), Benton Harbor (89 percent), Detroit (83 percent), Flint (56 percent), Pontiac (52 percent), and Ecorse (46 percent). Benton Harbor, which has been operating under an EM since 2010, saw its voter-participation rate decline by more than half.
Organized labor, civil-rights groups, and others challenging the law’s unprecedented scope initiated a series of lawsuits. The Ingham County Circuit Court found the law’s implementation to be in contravention of the Open Meetings Act. In 2010, a Wayne County court found the Detroit Public Schools EM had exceeded his mandate by attempting to make academic reforms, which at that time were within the elected school board’s sole discretion.
Numerous instances of abuse, conflict of interest, and mismanagement by EMs came to light. In Pontiac, EMs incurred a potential loss of $1.4 million in US Department of Housing and Urban Development funding due to mismanagement of grants. EM Michael Stampfler outsourced the city’s wastewater treatment to United Water shortly after the firm faced a 26-count indictment in Indiana for violating the Clean Water Act. In Highland Park, the EM had previously been terminated for making more than $200,000 in unauthorized payments to himself.
In Benton Harbor, an independent audit found that the EM had exceeded the budget by more than $650,000, had inadequate controls over its financial reporting, and had failed to make required contributions to pension plans. Senator Gary Peters and I called for a Government Accountability Office investigation, which found in 2015 that under the Flint EM, workforce cuts had reduced the city’s ability to obtain critical federal grants and led to federal funds being withheld from the city as a result of its failure to address grant-monitoring deficiencies.
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None of this went unnoticed by elected officials and voters. Along with two other members of Congress, 55 state legislators, and eight members of the Detroit City Council, I wrote a letter in December 2011 expressing concerns regarding the legislation’s implementation. Similar letters were issued by both of Michigan’s senators and two additional congressional representatives. In March 2012, we again wrote the governor seeking evidence that he was properly overseeing his emergency managers.
But voters themselves delivered perhaps the most significant warning sign. When a petition drive was initiated to allow Michigan voters to decide whether to retain the emergency-manager law, Republicans sought to thwart the effort with a series of legal and legislative maneuvers. Those attempts ultimately failed, and in November 2012, 52 percent of Michigan voters opted to repeal the controversial law outright.
Governor Snyder and the Republicans in Lansing responded to all of these warning signs by doubling down on the flawed law. Instead of listening to the voters and their elected representatives, independent experts, and watchdogs, they passed a substitute bill during a hastily called lame-duck session that retained many of its predecessor’s deficiencies. Even worse, the legislature added an appropriations rider, thereby preventing the citizens of Michigan from being able to overturn the new law. The same failed EMs that had been in place earlier returned to work or were recycled to other jurisdictions. For example, Darnell Earley, who presided over the Flint water debacle, was later appointed to run the Detroit public-school system, where he ignored health hazards that endanger our teachers, students, and parents.
The sad part is that there are more sensible alternatives than the heavy-handed, top-down approach to which Governor Snyder clings. There are numerous cases in which more effective legal alternatives have been used to restore fiscal stability while remaining true to the principles of representative government through the use of financial-control boards and similar supportive fiscal devices. Such methods have been used in New York City (1975), Cleveland (1978), Philadelphia (1991), Bridgeport, Connecticut (1991), the District of Columbia (1995), and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (2011), among other cities.
But after we’ve seen cities starved of desperately needed revenues; and citizens denied the right to elect their own leaders; and short-sighted, mindless budget cuts and privatization schemes; and failed EMs recycled into new jobs; and a steady drumbeat of warnings—from the courts, elected officials, independent watchdogs, and the voters themselves—ignored, the real question isn’t how the disasters in Flint and the Detroit public schools could have happened, but how many other state-made catastrophes are looming.
We can’t undo the damage already done by the lead-poisoned water in Flint, or fix the harm already caused by the deplorable conditions in Detroit’s public schools. But we can make sure that the unaccountable emergency managers responsible for these debacles—and the legal system that empowered them—are not permitted to inflict further harm on our citizens.
John Conyers Jr. is a US congressman for Michigan’s 13th District.