Commentary: Michigan’s Undemocratic Emergency Manager Law

The law that allows Gov. Rick Snyder to appoint a manager over Detroit violates the basic tenets of democracy.

Posted: 03/29/2013 11:07 AM EDT

As Detroit wrestles with the appointment of an emergency financial manager, the city is facing not just a controversial chapter in its history, but also a crucial debate over whether the state’s takeover of the city’s finances is constitutional.

That is the central question in a federal lawsuit filed by opponents of the decision by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to place the city’s finances under the control of his appointed custodian, Kevyn Orr.

The suit focuses on the law that enables the governor to appoint an emergency manager, asserting the position completely removes the power from the residents of the city who voted into office elected officials whose duty is to deal with the city’s finances.

The fact of the matter is that there is something outrageously undemocratic about a city whose voters have elected a mayor and members of a city council only to have the power of those officials removed by a governor. It is an effort, the likes of which are not being attempted anywhere else in the country to such a brazen degree, to completely ignore the American bedrock known as democracy.

It seems clear that the emergency manager law, which is Michigan’s Public Act 436, violates the voting rights of citizens of Detroit by eliminating their ability to empower the local officials whom they select. What’s more, it is a law that is being applied unfairly to cities across Michigan, targeting municipalities with significant African-American populations.

When voters go to the polls to elect city officials, they should have the right to expect that the people whom they elect will actually govern and make decisions. But, in Michigan, the assault on democracy by the Republican governor in Democratic-leaning cities with large Black constituencies has been as shocking as it has been unprecedented.

What makes the situation in Michigan particularly outrageous is the fact that the state’s voters approved in a referendum a measure that would have repealed the emergency manager law. But Snyder and the Republican-controlled legislature in Lansing decided that they could not possibly be derailed by something as minor as the will of the people. And so, they passed another law that re-established the emergency manager law in a way that would not allow any future referendums to block it in the future.

All of this has occurred with very little outrage throughout the country for a disturbing  battering of basic democratic tenets.

An emergency manager has almost unlimited power to make whatever shifts in governance he or she wishes. Contracts with unions can be abolished, the power of local city councils can be abolished and city workers can be fired at whim. In short, democracy is tossed out of the window.

When asked about this technique of governance, Snyder has said that he was elected by the voters of Michigan to make these hard decisions and that he was democratically elected to do what’s best for the cities in his state.

But isn’t the democracy that enabled voters to elect Snyder the same as the democracy of the people who elect Detroit’s mayor and city council? Is it not the same democracy that empowered the people of the state to reject the emergency manager law in the referendum? Democracy should not be a feature that can be observed by a governor when it meets his political objectives.

The hope is that the federal judge will agree and throw a well-deserved wrench into Snyder’s unfair and racially selective application of the emergency manager law. And it couldn’t come a minute too soon.

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(Photo:  REUTERS/ Rebecca Cook)

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