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State ends Black political leadership

Changes at 36th District Court, Financial challenges bring state oversight of all branches of government in Detroit

By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — With state oversight of the 36th District Court, elected officials in the city of Detroit have been stripped of their power and authority in all units and branches of government.  The Detroit Public Schools have been under emergency management since 2009, with the appointment of three different managers. In March of this year, the city of Detroit was appointed an emergency manager whose powers supersede that of mayor and City Council.

In May, the Michigan Supreme Court appointed sitting appellate court judge Michael Talbot to the state’s largest limited jurisdiction court to oversee the court’s restructuring. Judge Talbot’s appointment came only days following an unfavorable report by the National Center for State Courts.

“When they came in, they told us it was to give suggestions to streamline the court and help with that process,” former Chief Judge Kenneth King said in a telephone interview. “Less than three weeks later, they issued a report bashing every member of our bench, as well as employees.”

The report, which King says was initially a study to improve court operations, stated that the most significant issue facing the court was its leadership. There are currently 31 judges on the bench and approximately 150 employees. It also cited budget overruns, case backlogs and antiquated equipment as problematic.

“It is uncertain as to whether the present management team is capable of leading District 36 out of its current crisis and positioning it for a better future,” the report reads.

King says the report implies the court leadership and employees are “incompetent.” It suggests the state consider if the court leadership was “right for the time.”

It reads in part: “An immediate decision needs to be made on the capability of Chief Judge King and Court Administrator (Monica) Lyght to lead the court through these challenging times.” The drafters of the report wrote that in discussing solutions with King and Lyght who are both Black, they felt both lacked “inventiveness and resourcefulness.”

Two months later, King was removed as chief judge. The Supreme Court issued an order July 22 for King’s removal, effective immediately, citing an inability or unwillingness to provide leadership or assistance to Judge Talbot.

King and many of the court’s employees have grown critical of Talbot’s supervisory position. Some believe the move by the state to takeover the 36th District is an effort to dissolve it, as was done with Recorder’s Court in 1997.

At 36th District, Talbot said his priorities were the budget, collections and reorganization. His initial staff of eight is growing, says King. He laid-off over 80 employees, some of which he had to bring back. Several employees have complained that Talbot’s layoffs have caused chaos and confusion at the courthouse, leading to extremely long lines, and even less efficiency in services.

In June, the court closed one day for three hours because there were not enough employees to service the volume of people paying for tickets or needing other services.

“I don’t think we have good management now,” said Lynette Anderson, a courtroom clerk.

According to Anderson, Talbot’s massive layoffs left many employees scrambling to learn new job skills. Because many supervisors were laid off, others moved into new positions but had no one to train them.

“People are doing jobs they weren’t trained to do,” she said. “And we’ve been given directives to do as we’re told or be suspended.”

Marjorie Dickerson, a cashier who said she’s watched the volume of work increase, witnessed employees filling out papers incorrectly, but they were following orders.

Dickerson said the only recourse is to file a grievance. “How do you fight the Supreme Court when they’re the ones who sent him here?” Dickerson asked. “People are being controlled out of fear.”

Andrea, a court reporter, says while the court has had its challenges over the years, she’s never worked under such a tense environment. “When the bench is tense, it makes everything else tense,” she said. “It’s like being in a war and not knowing who the enemy is.”

Kings says in budget hearings with City Council, he understood that some layoffs would have had to be made “but not 80 people.”

“I would have gone to the unions and board for furlough days, so the court would not be in danger of not delivering services.”

In budget hearings, King said he was told not to lay off employees. The $31 million budget was cut by $6 million.

“City Council always underfunded (the court) but has always kicked in and helped made payroll,” he said.

King says he was aware things could not continue that way and spoke with EM Kevyn Orr and former CFO Jack Martin in March, where both indicated they would modify the budget so there would not be an overrun. King says Talbot was brought in anyway.

Overall, King says his greatest concern with Talbot’s supervision is that he’s farmed out traffic violation services to surrounding jurisdictions. “My biggest issue is having other district courts adjudicate our cases (and) we are not able to do the same.”

King says that’s revenue the court is losing. Other limited jurisdiction courts are now able to receive payment for Detroit issued tickets and give 50 percent of the money received back to Detroit.

“But we still have to do all the work of processing, King said. “That out-county program is going to reduce the number of cases and justify the number of judges need.” Detroit is losing money, he added.

Political consultant Adolph Mongo said the city of Detroit is experiencing a coup d’etat. “(The state) has basically made a statement that Black people are no longer accountable to elect anybody or hold any leadership roles,” Mongo said. “You have the white power (structure) in Lansing running the show.”

Mongo says cities across the state are experiencing financial challenges, but the state has not taken over their local units of government. “Hazel Park Schools are broke, but (Gov. Rick) Snyder says they can work something out.”

Mongo says the state’s appointment of oversight of Detroit’s 80 percent Black populated city for the sake of making it run efficient is “bull—-.”

“A lot of (the financial problems) Detroit is facing comes from the state,” says Mongo. “It doesn’t want to pay revenue sharing … the state got bailed out because it took all the stimulus money and didn’t pay their bill, and they want to talk about us.”

It’s a game plan that has been taking place for the past 40 years, he said, since Coleman Young was elected mayor in 1973. “They’ve sent a clear message. It’s racism 101. The removal of Black officials, like moving the Indians out of Georgia and North Carolina, it doesn’t matter.”

Talbot was reported as saying he doesn’t see his position on the court as a takeover. “The Supreme Court has responsibility for all of the inferior courts in the state,” he said.

It is unclear how long Talbot will be in position at the 36th District.

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