Investigating emergency management in Michigan
An experiment in nonprofit journalism
By Curt Guyette
Special to the Michigan Citizen
The suspension of democracy in financially stressed cities and school districts spread across Michigan is an unprecedented occurrence. There have never been laws in Michigan that violate citizens’ rights prior to Public Act 4, which was quickly rejected by voters, and its hastily enacted replacement, PA 436.
New legal ground is being broken here, with appointed officials assuming near-dictatorial powers as the state pursues a radical change in how it deals with local units of government facing insolvency.
There are some, perhaps many, who believe the takeover of Detroit and other local units of government is both necessary and legal, and the state has the right to seize control when financial crises erupt. The taking of authority from duly elected officials is justified because the financial situation is so dire and potentially far-reaching.
Whether this approach to governance is actually constitutional remains a matter to be sorted out by the courts. But legal or not — to deny certain citizens the right of having elected representatives make critical decisions that will affect their well-being far into the future — even Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr doesn’t call that democracy.
“While we are very pleased,” Orr said after a federal judge approved the declaration of bankruptcy he sought, “we remain very concerned to adjust the city’s debt and improve the level of service for its citizens and to also prepare for the city to exit this receivership in a fashion that restores democracy to the city.”
It is good EM Orr is concerned about restoring democracy. So is the ACLU of Michigan. It is an organization with a long history of defending individual rights and liberties, and there’s nothing more fundamental than the right to choose our leaders at the ballot box. The fact the people forced to endure this curtailment of a fundamental right are, in large part, African American and poor intensifies the concern. For this reason, the Michigan ACLU has hired this investigative reporter to write about emergency management, its impact on the municipalities and school districts under EMs and open government.
Adding to the significance of all this is the fact many outside of Michigan are watching with a keen eye: Public retirees and employees, unions and civil rights groups, Wall Street bankers and corporations looking to cash in on privatization and asset sales — all those and more have a potential stake in what happens here, especially if it becomes a model that other states adopt. No one, however, has more at stake than the hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents who have already had fundamental democratic rights curtailed.
Although it has helped on at least two of the lawsuits challenging the legality of PA 436, the ACLU of Michigan decided more needed to be done. The question was, what? After carefully exploring territory outside the usual boxes, the idea was formed to hire an investigative reporter to focus attention exclusively on the issues surrounding emergency management, and the threats it poses to open government.
Breaking new ground
This project is something quite new — not just for me and this organization, but for nonprofits such as this in general. It is an innovative approach, without many models to draw from. In some ways we’re finding our own way, creating as we go.
There is certainly no shortage of stories to be told, and a lot of ground to cover.
Every place in Michigan under emergency management is within the scope of this project: Whether it is the tangled relationships of big law firms such as Jones Day (which has been selected to guide the restructuring of Detroit), or the fight of public pensioners in Pontiac to save their healthcare benefits, or closed door meetings under way to shape the future of Flint.
Along with providing my work to interested newspapers, I’ll also be writing a blog, which is still in its formative stages. For the time being it can read at aclumich.org. The next step will be a web page of its own. We’ve also been wrestling with the question of what to name it, considering ideas both good and bad. We’re currently leaning toward one of three — “EM Watch” “State of Emergency” and “Democracy Central” — feel free to provide feedback on a preference, or kick in a suggestion of your own.
I’d like to emphasize here readers are a crucial partner in this effort. I’m hoping a dialogue develops between us: Comments and criticisms are absolutely encouraged. You are also being counted on to help generate specific investigations by providing tips. I can be contacted by phone at 313.578.6834, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, should you have a packet of potentially incriminating documents that might be of interest, the U.S. Postal Service remains an effective way to share information, especially if you wish to remain anonymous. The address at the ACLU of Michigan is 2966 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48201.
With that, this introduction is complete. Now the real work begins.
Editor’s note: A column on Curt’s EM coverage will appear periodically in the Michigan Citizen and online at michigancitizen.com