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Court turns control of the Detroit Public Library to ‘emergency’ manager

Russ Bellant

Russ Bellant

By Russ Bellant

Third Judicial Circuit Court Judge Annette Berry issued a decision that turns control of the Detroit Public Library over to the “emergency” manager by allowing the EM unprecedented authority “to remove, replace, appoint or confirm appointments to the Library Commission.”

The Detroit Library Commission is the governing body over the Detroit Public Library, an independent municipal corporation. It is, or was, the last independent municipal institution in the city.

The court opinion is mistaken, in my opinion, on two counts. The opinion states that the EM has the powers of the Detroit Board of Education and the Board has the appointing power of commissioners to the DLC under Local Act 390 of 1903. Therefore, the EM can, assuming those Board powers, appoint or remove library commissioners.

I believe this to be the first error. The sole duty of the Board in connection with the library was that of appointing commissioners. It had no removal power or any oversight whatsoever concerning the DLC or library generally. This is clear in reading Local Act 390. So, if the Board could not remove commissioners, awarding the EM the Board’s powers does not give the EM removal powers either.

Secondly, the opinion cites (on page 4) the language of PA 436 that says that the EM can “remove, replace, appoint or confirm appointments to any office, board, commission, authority or other entity which is within or is a component unit of the local government.” In order to uphold this appointing power over any entity, it must be established that the entity (in this case the library) is in fact a component unit of the local government that the EM is appointed to control. The opinion then goes on to say that the Library Commission is a component of the school board (page 6) simply because they are appointed by the Board. This is not true.

A plain reading of Local Act 390 makes clear that the DLC makes all legal decisions for the library and there is no oversight of the school board. An earlier law, Local Act 359 of 1901, in fact separated the library system from Detroit Public Schools. To make even clearer that the library is not part of the school board, both local acts identify the city of Detroit, a separate municipal corporation, as the fiduciary of the library system. So if the city has general oversight over the DPL’s finances, how can the DPL be a component of the school board?

The law was written so that the city had a role (financial) in the library and the Board of Education had a very limited role in appointing but not overseeing the Library Commission. These elements of law allowed the library to operate as an independent public corporation with outside oversight of its revenue collections and budget approval by the city, not the school board.

So, if the DPL EM can only act on component units of the school district and the library is not a component, then the EM cannot control the composition of the Commission. If the library is to remain an independent public entity, informed citizens will need to support efforts to keep it independent.

Click here to see the judge’s opinion.

Russ Bellant is president of the Detroit Library Commission.

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