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Bellwether for Detroit

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

In the controversy over the financial future of Detroit, uncertainty seems to be the most oft-repeated term. This uncertainty is attributed to the fact that no other major American city has faced the same kinds of structural problems confronting Detroit.

From loss of population, abandonment of capital, to nearly half the property owners’ delinquency on taxes, we have little money to support essential services. Additionally, we are burdened with longstanding debt and an array of tax breaks that were long ago granted in hopes of spurring never-to-happen developments.

Almost everyone agrees we need to do some things differently but cannot agree on what those things should be. However, it should be clear that almost no one in the city of Detroit thinks an emergency financial manager or the state legislature have answers to our problems.

More than 80 percent of the city voted against emergency manager legislation. The majority voted to uphold the right and responsibility of the corporation counsel to challenge the legality of the consent agreement.

Many of us have been calling for the development of a participatory budgeting process that would broaden and strengthen the democratic practices of the city. These practices are widely used throughout Central and South America and increasingly in U.S. cities from Los Angeles to Brooklyn.

Further, it should be obvious that emergency managers have not achieved any of the results promised. They are profoundly undemocratic as well as ineffectual. We in Detroit have the experience of the state takeover of our school system for all but three of the last 14 years. No one thinks that is going well.

But perhaps the most important parallel for us to consider is our sister city of Benton Harbor. It is our bellwether. On the western shore of the state, Benton Harbor mirrors Detroit. It is a predominantly African American city surrounded by wealthier, whiter neighbors in St. Joseph. The major industrial employer is Whirlpool. It has moved manufacturing out of the state, while it retains administration offices in the city.

This January, Joe Harris resigned as emergency manager of Benton Harbor. Harris, originally appointed in 2010 by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, was continued under Gov. Snyder. His arrogant, dictatorial and high-handed approach to the city earned it the title of “Ground Zero in American Politics.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson called it the new Selma. Harris put on graphic display the failures of a manager freed from civic restraints of any kind. His first act under expanded powers was to eliminate the power of elected officials. The New York Times offered this assessment:

“Having neutered the city’s elected officials (‘I am the mayor and the commission, and I don’t need them’), fired the city’s finance director (‘I’d been told she was incompetent, but she really didn’t have a clue’) and city manager (‘He was smart and articulate, but he just wasn’t doing anything that I couldn’t do’), Harris, a former accounting professor, is pretty much single-handedly running Benton Harbor.”

This disdain for democracy was coupled with an assault on public resources. He fired most of the people on the planning commission, replacing them with hand-picked associates. Jean Klock Park was turned over to private developers to provide more holes for a golf course charging $180 a round, while telling the courts that the course served a public purpose.

Harris consolidated city services, including introducing new “quick response vehicles.” These are little pickup trucks that the NYT explained were “outfitted with fire-retardant-foam-releasing contraptions that require a lot less money and manpower to operate than traditional fire trucks.”

He imposed a special tax assessment on the city after voters rejected a mileage.

Evidence is mounting that emergency managers do not work. They are profoundly anti-democratic and diminish a city with their efforts.

For all the talk of realism in Lansing, they are the ones refusing to think critically about what we need to do.

Contact Shea Howell at howell@oakland.edu

 

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