With mouths taped shut
Flint EM changes council meeting procedures
By Curt Guyette
Special to the Michigan Citizen
When the Flint Branch of the ACLU held a panel discussion on emergency management last week, one of participants, activist Claire McClinton, pointed out the event was being held at a site where autoworkers staged a landmark sit-down strike in the 1930s.
That action — with workers asserting their rights and making sure their voices were heard — proved to be a pivotal moment in the history of organized labor. In fact, it can be argued what those union members did went even further than that, helping to strengthen American democracy by increasing the collective clout of the working class and providing a much-needed balance to corporate power.
So there’s no small amount of irony in the fact that Flint is now part of what can be called an experiment in anti-democracy. As pointed out by panelist John Philo, legal director of the nonprofit Sugar Law Center, Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law breaks new ground. It is, he said, more extreme than anything on the books anywhere in the United States.
While Detroit and its bankruptcy receive much attention from the national media, the actions of emergency managers in places such as Flint often go little-noticed outside the cities and school districts where they have been installed.
Evidence of this can be found in recent directives issued by Flint EM Darnell Earley, who decided unilaterally the way the City Council conducted its meetings needed to be changed.
“This order is for the purpose of ensuring the business of the city of Flint conducted at City Council meetings occurs in an orderly, dignified and efficient manner, reflecting the level of professionalism deserved by councilmembers, city officials and staff, and members of the public who sacrifice their free time to attend meetings,” Earley declared.
Specifically, he limited the time council members can speak to five minutes, and reined in what they can speak about. Then, in a subsequent order that took effect April 1, he moved the public comment period from the start of meetings to near the end, and reduced the amount of time each person can speak from five minutes to three.
Doing so, he explained in his order, was intended to “ensure that members of the public who sacrifice their free time to attend meetings are given a reasonable opportunity to address Council without having to wait an unnecessarily extensive period of time to do so.”
How it is that forcing people to sit through an entire council meeting before being allowed to say their piece actually makes things more convenient for the public was not explained. My requests for comments from Earley’s office received no reply.
Councilman Scott Kincaid, however, had no problem talking about the issue.
“It is very insulting,” he said in a phone interview. “It is like a teacher with elementary school kids telling them what they can and can’t do.”
In a way, the action gets to the heart of just how vast the powers of emergency managers are under the current law. How a council conducts its meetings has zero to do with solving the financial crises used to justify the appointment of EMs. And there’s nothing council members can do about it. Whatever authority a council may or may not have is completely dictated by the emergency manager, who also has the authority to determine how much, if anything, council members are paid, when they can meet, and what’s on their agendas.
“The law really takes away the voice of the public, allowing just one (unelected) person decide how their tax dollars will be spent,” said Kincaid, a 29-year council veteran who is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Michigan’s EM law. “The EM law takes away democracy. This isn’t how our government is designed to work, and it is not how our government should be operated.”
The fact that they are now prevented from telling the council how they feel before a vote is taken proved to be particularly galling to a number of Flint residents, some of whom showed up at an Earley press briefing — which they were prevented from entering — with their mouths taped shut.
“What the emergency manager is saying by doing this is that he really doesn’t want the public to participate in the process,” said activist Nayyirah Shariff, one of the organizers of the protest. “It is another way of further disenfranchising the community.”
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.