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Emergency experience

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Voters across the state of Michigan face a number of critical ballot questions this November. Detroiters, as well as people in other communities who have experienced the effects of emergency managers, have a special responsibility to advocate for the repeal of Public Act 4 (PA4). This legislation gives the state authority to appoint managers that set aside locally elected officials. Securing a “yes” vote to repeal the law is a critical step in developing democracy. We need to spread the word to voters around the state.

Corporate, foundation and right-wing Republicans have been pouring money into campaigns that will try to obscure issues and confuse voters. Over the next few weeks these efforts will accelerate and all of us need to make the case against PA4 clear and compelling.

Fundamentally, emergency managers are anti-democratic. They move our state and its public life toward greater centralized control marked by the arbitrary exercise of power, and devoid of public accountability.

At a time when much of the world is experiencing a new democratic awakening, the efforts by forces in Michigan to diminish local rights and responsibilities is regressive, mean spirited, and out of step with history.

Our experience in Detroit with Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb and Emergency Manager Roy Roberts illustrates vividly how anti-democratic these positions are.

First, the position fosters an unchecked expansion of personal powers. Almost immediately after his appointment as emergency financial manager under earlier, more limited legislation, Bobb moved from making financial decisions about Detroit Public Schools to making academic policies. It required an incredible struggle, culminating in a court order, to halt Bobb’s efforts.

In a similar fashion, Roberts, who under PA4 had both financial and academic control of the schools, moved to position himself on the Library Commission. This expansion of power was also greeted with public protest, fearing it endangered one of the last remaining public resources in the city.

Second, emergency managers are antagonistic to open, democratic forums. Most Detroiters vividly remember the painful, circus-like atmosphere that Bobb created as he arbitrarily closed schools, giving principals and students 20 minutes each to justify their existence. Roberts avoids public meetings as much as he can. During the controversy over the Library Commission, Roberts took one look at the overflowing room, announced he didn’t have to put up with this, and walked out.

Third, emergency managers disrespect elected officials, union history and public assets.

Rather than attempting to work with the elected school board, for example, both Bobb and Roberts attempted to curtail their authority. Roberts, in the last few months has taken an especially punitive and combative approach to the elected board, charging them with disrupting education for children. He moved their offices to a small classroom as punishment for their defense of students who complained about the quality of their education. Setting aside union contracts is standard procedure for emergency mangers, as is the willingness to sell off public assets.

Finally, emergency managers target the most vulnerable among us in the name of financial efficiency. For example, both Bobb and Roberts have disrupted services provided to students with special needs. At a time when most of us believe that a more inclusive, more compassionately expansive education is essential for the development of whole people, emergency managers take us in the wrong direction.

There is little likelihood that Detroiters will vote to give the state power to continue to appoint emergency managers. But the repeal of this anti-democratic act will also depend on the good judgment of voters around our state.

Over the next few months we have a unique opportunity to talk with one another about what democracy can and should look like. It is a welcome challenge

Contact Shea Howell at howell@oakland.edu

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