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Benton Harbor EM gone, but no self-rule yet

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Tony Saunders

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Tony Saunders

Staff Report

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Tony Saunders left town March 7, but democracy did not re-appear in this southwestern Michigan city, one of the nation’s poorest.

Gov. Rick Snyder immediately appointed a Receivership Transition Advisory Board to take control of the city. The board’s powers and duties are laid out in 11-pages of orders left by Saunders. The orders can be viewed at http://bentonharborcity.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/EM-Order-14-31.pdf

According to the orders, the elected commission needs the permission of the Advisory Board to conduct any city business from developing or amending budgets to changing job descriptions to hiring or firing to submitting any reports requested by the Board.

City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad said, “Representative democracy is still flat lined in the city of Benton Harbor. The orders that Mr. Saunders signed as he was walking out the door serve as a straightjacket and ultimately suffocate the vote of the people.”

Saunder’s orders defy the vote of the people who rejected charter changes in August that are now incorporated in the former EM’s order. The charter requires department heads to report to the city manager except the city’s clerk, assessor, attorney and the Department of Finance and Law, whose heads report directly to the City Commission. Saunders’ orders require all city employees to report to the city manager.

Snyder appointed to the advisory board Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski; Marvin Raglon, retired Whirlpool manager and part owner of Lark’s Bar-B-Que in Benton Harbor; Sharon Hunt, former human resources/trade customer support manager at Whirlpool Corp.; and Cary Vaughn, audit manager at the Michigan Department of Treasury.

Commissioner Juanita Henry said she is concerned about Whirlpool’s influence on the advisory board.

“I think they put the fox in the henhouse to have Whirlpool executives making decisions about Benton Harbor,” she said.

Benton Harbor had EM Joe Harris for two years prior to Saunders.  When Saunders arrived the city’s general fund deficit was $2 million. Last month Saunders borrowed $2.3 million from the state over the objections of the commission who said the city had no way to repay the loan. Saunders told this paper the loan was a good deal, the debt was spread over a long term instead of having to be paid immediately.

It is rumored Saunders will be taking a job with the Birmingham, Michigan financial services firm Conway MacKenzie. Saunders refused to comment in a recent interview on the new job, saying then “it is too early to announce my future.”

According to published reports, Conway MacKenzie is a good friend of former State Treasurer Andy Dillon who now works for the company. Dillon resigned in Oct. 2013, after his alcoholism, spousal abuse, drug use and racial texting came to light. Snyder kept Dillon on until the end of January at full salary to train the new Treasurer. The last four weeks of his added time were spent vacationing in the Caribbean. As treasurer, Dillon decided when cities or school districts went into emergency management.

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