Michigan ‘czars’ strip away citizens’ rights
Imagine Gov. George Wallace of Alabama in 1963 appointing an emergency manager in Birmingham with broad powers to dismiss elected officials, renegotiate contracts, sell assets and become sole authority of the city’s pension funds a month after the voters rejected the emergency manager law in a statewide referendum. What would Dr. King have written from his Birmingham jail cell?
Emergencies can force people to come together. They can also be used by the powerful to impose policies that would otherwise be rejected. Author Naomi Klein called this the “shock doctrine,” using a crisis to overcome democratic resistance.
The state of Michigan is in crisis. The Great Recession added to the collapse of the auto industry. Wrong-headed trade policies hollowed out a proud manufacturing center. When the recession hit, revenues sank, costs rose. Conservatives took over the state government and cut funds to cities in revenue sharing. Detroit, Flint and other cities hit the wall financially.
Conservative Republicans passed a harsh emergency manager (EM) law that empowered the governor to appoint virtually a czar with powers to strip elected officials of their powers and their salaries, break contracts, sell off assets and act as a virtual dictator. Benton Harbor, Allen Park, Ecorse and Flint were placed under emergency managers.
Last November, Michigan voters struck down the EM law in a statewide referendum. A stunning 82 percent of Detroit voters rejected it. But the lame-duck Republican state Legislature scorned the majority and enacted a new EM law the following month.
And now conservative Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has appointed his czar to take over Detroit beginning last week. Almost one half of African Americans in Michigan are now governed by these czars, effectively having their democratic rights stripped away.
Financial crises force gruesome choices. Work forces have to be reduced; services cut back. Pension and health-care promises come under review. These difficult choices — and the shared sacrifices needed — make democratic representation most important. Elected leaders must seek to gain public support for harsh choices. And the public can hold them accountable if the choices seem unfair or unwise.
Trampling democracy and installing an outside emergency manager opens the way not for tough, accountable choices, but for plunder. Assets are sold off at fire sale prices. Creditors are made whole, while unions are busted and contracts broken. Appointing an emergency manager will not only, as state Sen. Coleman Young, Jr. concluded, “destroy democracy in Detroit,” it will expose people to predatory choices.
In Pontiac, crisis management has yielded the sale of the Silverdome for $583,000 — although it cost nearly $56 million to build. In Benton Harbor, an emergency manager sold city-owned, lakefront property to a development company for a prestigious golf course that the majority of residents cannot afford to play.
Much of this crisis is not of Detroit’s making. Detroit didn’t hollow out the auto industry. Detroit didn’t blow up the housing bubble and sink the economy. Yes, the citizens of Detroit will face even harder times, but they don’t need an unelected czar to sell off the city and break its unions. They need a plan to rebuild Detroit.
When Wall Street’s excesses blew up the economy, Washington devoted trillions to bail out the big banks and ensure that the financial system would not collapse. Now we need a plan for urban reconstruction, one that will provide hope to cities that are acting responsibly. We need a plan to rebuild Detroit, not a czar to sell off its assets in a fire sale to private interests.