NAACP sues, ‘EM law violates voting rights’
By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — “Something is rotten in the state of Michigan!”
Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, spoke these words at a press conference May 13 to announce the filing of a federal lawsuit against the state’s emergency manager law, Public Act 436.
The lawsuit filed by the Detroit Branch and Michigan State Conference NAACP in the United States District Court for the Eastern District is now the third federal complaint against the new law, which went into effect March 28.
The defendants are Gov. Rick Snyder, State Treasurer Andy Dillion and Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.
“We’re here today because we in the city of Detroit, along with 2.3 million Michiganders, still say no to the imposition, the forced acceptance and unfair application of one man given the authority to decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of Michigan citizens, called an emergency manager,” Rev. Anthony said.
The case, unlike the others that claim violations of the Open Meetings Act and right to collective bargaining, is “purely a right to vote case,” said Rev. Anthony, who spoke to the repeal of the preceding EM law Public Act 4 by over 50 percent of Michigan voters in the recent general election.
The state’s Republican-dominated state legislature approved the legislation and Gov. Rick Snyder signed the new law in a lame duck session.
Rev. Anthony declared that Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed eight EMs during his three years in office, has to be held responsible for the damage caused to cities under what many call the “dictator” law.
“Gov. Snyder must be held accountable for this great tragedy, which has negated Michigan and thus American democracy. His relentless non-positive action is causing a tremendous negative reaction on the part of those who live in the largest city in our state,” he said.
The lawsuit is brought under the Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment, in addition to the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to protect citizens’ right to vote.
The suit argues:
- PA 436 is unconstitutional because it strips power from locally elected officials and grants power to unelected emergency mangers, in some parts of the state but not others.
- PA 436 is unconstitutional because the state elected communities of color for emergency manager oversight even though there were white communities in the same or worse fiscal trouble
- PA 436 is illegal because the state failed to get prior approval of the U.S. attorney general before the law went into effect.
Detroit NAACP General Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell called the process of EM appointments arbitrary and capricious.
“In their haste, they forgot to get prior approval of the U.S. attorney general,” he said. “Michigan is one of 16 states covered by the Voting Rights Act, and any change in major proportions of voting rights has to be cleared by the attorney general or declaratory judgment.”
The appointment of an emergency manager in any local unit of government, including municipalities and school districts, renders all elected officials ineffective. All decision-making, legislative and executive, is made by the EM.
With the recent appointment of an emergency manager over the City of Detroit, Michigan’s largest municipality, over 50 percent of the state’s 1.4 million African American residents are now under the rule of emergency managers.
The cities of Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Flint, Pontiac and Allen Park, and Detroit Public School, Highland Park School and Muskegon Heights School districts are ruled by unelected emergency managers. All but Allen Park have a majority African American populous.
Hollowell, who also spoke at the conference, says the law has been applied in a discriminatory manner.
“Walled Lake Consolidated School District laid off bus drivers and canceled classes last week and is not on the state’s watch list,” said Hollowell. “[The district has] been moving inexorably to deficit spending for a long period of time.”
Walled Lake’s expenses are projected to exceed its revenues by over $10 million for the upcoming school year.
Serving 15,000 students, the Walled Lake Consolidated School District includes Walled Lake, Farmington Hills, Novi, Orchard Lake, Wixom, White Lake, Wolverine Lake and West Bloomfield. All of these affluent areas have a majority white population.
The state treasurer’s office has developed a system for ranking the fiscal health of Michigan’s cities on a scale of 0-10. The fiscal indicator scoring of 0-4 is “fiscally neutral,” 5-7 is “watch list” and 8 to 10 “fiscal stress.”
The most recent year the scores were ranked online by county is 2009, when the city of Pontiac in Oakland County, with a score of 6, was appointed an emergency manager.
At the same time, State Treasurer Dillion gave three other Oakland County cities the same score: Hazel Park, Pleasant Ridge and Troy. All are predominately white municipalities. None were appointed emergency managers.
Hollowell said the discriminatory pattern is repeated in other counties throughout the state.
“Public Act 4 has had a disparate and discriminatory impact on voters of color in the state,” he said. “The value of the individual’s right to vote for locally-elected officials has been diluted.”
The 110-page, 91-count complaint states: “The value of the individual’s right to vote for locally-elected officials is 100 percent higher in non-emergency manager jurisdictions, which are predominantly white, than it is in emergency manager jurisdictions, which are predominantly African American.”
“[We want to] elect [our] own mayor, and he or she does the executive job, and elect our own city council and municipal board members, and they do [their] jobs,” said Rev. Anthony. “We’ll accept nothing less. If they can do it in Troy, in Grosse Pointe, Lansing, we want to do it and demand the right to do it in the city of Detroit.”
Rev. Anthony and Hollowell quoted former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.
“‘The right to vote is the guiding principle of our democracy. A community that suffers financial hardship should be allowed to make the difficult decisions that hardship necessitates, rather than be subject to unilateral dictate. Self government does not end when creditors are displeased.’”
“You do not have to throw your constitutional rights out the window in order to get to this path of recovery,” Hollowell said. “We know there is a path, and we’re looking forward to an injunction and elimination of this draconian emergency manager law from the court.”
The two read from a letter they sent to Gov. Snyder and other state officials that listed revenue recommendations for the City of Detroit that would generate a combined $272 million for the annual general fund. Recommendations included reinstating the residency requirement for city employees. Over nearly 70 percent of the city’s police force live outside the city. They estimate residency reinstatement would generate approximately $40 million per year in additional revenue. They also suggested elimination of the personal property tax on industrial property and an allowance for citizens to pay their municipal property taxes in monthly installments, which they estimate would generate $60 million in additional revenue.
While the list of cost-savings suggestions needs to be a part of the discussion, Hollowell said the recommendations are not part of the lawsuit.
“We want Public Act 436 ruled unconstitutional,” he said.
Rev. Anthony said there’s no compromise on that.
“Nothing [is] acceptable other than the people’s rights to elect their own publicly duly-elected officials. The way you get rid of folks not doing the job is you un-elect them. We do it every two to four years.”
The revenue recommendations, he said, are “icing on the cake.”
“We’re saying there are many solutions to this problem,” Hollowell said. “We’ve gone through [EM Kevyn Orr’s] report with a fine tooth comb. They’re no solutions in Orr’s plan.”
“The state cannot just absolve itself,” he added. “They’ve done some things that stepped on the budget of the city of Detroit.”
Nothing he said was a surprise, Rev. Anthony said, adding that Orr did not suggest economic solutions.
“Tell us something new. We know there’s a financial issue in the city of Detroit; there’s a financial issue in our nation. We have a $16 trillion deficit. But we’re not taking away the rights to elect our congressmen and our president based on an economic distressed situation,” he said. “Why should that be the case in Detroit? Right now, all we’re hearing is cut, slash and sell. No one has put on the table revenue generating or development programs or economic solutions to what we face.”
The Detroit Branch NAACP said their issue is not to attempt to fix Detroit or change the entrenched governmental structures from the last 50-75 years that have led the city to a fiscal crisis.
“Where we draw the line in the sand is taking the right of the people and their constitutionally guaranteed right, home charter guaranteed right to elect and select their own publicly elected officials. We draw the line there; we can fix Detroit without taking away our constitutionally guaranteed right,” said Rev. Anthony.
The plaintiffs have asked the court for preliminary and permanent injunction to stop the enforcement of the emergency manager law.
“We’d like to get in court as soon as possible,” said Hollowell. “This is a matter of great urgency to the people of the [affected] jurisdictions. We’ve asked the court to stop the emergency managers from being able to exercise any authority over any jurisdiction in the state of Michigan.”
U.S. Judge Paul Borman has been assigned to the case. Additional plaintiffs are Donnell White, executive director, Detroit NAACP; Maureen Taylor, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization; Rep. Thomas Stallworth III, D-Detroit, Chair Michigan Legislative Black Caucus and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit). Nabih Ayad of the Arab-American Civil Rights League is acting co-counsel.