By Curt Guyette
Special to the Michigan Citizen
PONTIAC — The debate currently underway in Lansing is focusing on how long the state will retain control over the city of Detroit.
If the legislature is going to contribute more than $350 million to Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s so-called “grand bargain” that is part of his bankruptcy plan, then it wants “oversight” long after Orr leaves office.
Twenty years of oversight.
What the residents of Pontiac and other cities that have seen emergency managers leave once budgets have been balanced is that the only thing unusual about the Detroit situation is the length of time being discussed. The way the law is set up, the return of democracy is anything but immediate once solvency has been achieved.
What happened in Pontiac is Emergency Manager Lou Schimmel, as he was leaving office, issued an order placing broad powers into the hands of an appointed city manager. As with Benton Harbor and Ecorse, a “transition advisory board” appointed by the governor has also been put in place. But the term is a misnomer. The board isn’t advisory.
Under Schimmel’s final order, virtually every action the City Council takes is subject to approval by both the city manager and the transition advisory board. The only actions the council can take unilaterally are those that are “procedural or incidental in the operation of a council meeting or ceremonial…”
In other words, the checks and balances that have been key to American democracy since the country’s founding remain absent for years. Even if the governor decides a transition advisory board is no longer needed and is dissolved, local governments must wait another two years before they can overturn any order issued by an emergency manager.
In his five years on Pontiac’s City Council, Kermit Williams has never known what it is like to fully represent the people who elected him. Pontiac has been under some form of state control since Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, appointed an emergency financial manager (with limited authority) in 2009.
State control became absolute in 2011 with the passage of the first Emergency Manager law — Public Act 4 — in 2011. When voters rejected that law because of its overreach, the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder quickly replaced it with a new law, PA 436, which grants EMs essentially the same authority they had under PA 4.
Now that Schimmel has left office (but still has a hand in things as a member of the four-person transition advisory board) Williams and his fellow council members still face a situation where their voices have been muted. To a large extent, the same is true of the city’s mayor, even though Pontiac is supposed to have a strong mayor form of government.
“Our mayor is supposed to be the city’s champion, our spokesman, but that’s not the way things are now,” Williams said in a recent phone interview.
Instead, there is Schimmel’s Order S-334, which decrees the city manager shall “serve as the official and exclusive city representative before the board, state departments and agencies, and the Michigan Legislature, with assistance from the finance director, the mayor and deputy mayor.
Among other things, the city manager was given the authority to “direct and supervise all city departments, agencies, officers and functions.”
“We are a part-time council with zero staff,” said Williams. “We don’t even have a secretary. How are we supposed to do our due diligence in a situation like that?”
Likewise, there’s no budget for the council to have a legislative auditor to provide an independent analysis of the budgets the city is required to operate under.
Even with the emergency manager no longer in office, said Williams, “any type of checks and balances has still been eliminated.”
Many questions remain unanswered regarding the long-term effectiveness of the state’s Emergency Manager law. In some cases, the answers will present themselves soon enough. For example, what will happen when contracts expire for all the services that have been contracted out — from police and fire service to garbage collection — and there are no longer any public options to compare them? The way Williams sees it, with the city no longer owning police cars, fire engines and garbage trucks of its own, it will have few options if contractors start demanding higher payments.
Time will tell.
There is another question, though, that’s more subjective. Pontiac, like nearly every other city and school district that has fallen under state control, isn’t only majority African American and Latino. It is also a poor city, with a poverty rate nearly twice the state average.
This, said Williams, means that inherent in the debate over state control, is this question:
“Do people without financial strength deserve democracy?”
Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work, which focuses on Michigan’s emergency management law and open government, is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. You can find more of his reporting at aclumich.org/democracywatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313.578.6834.