Michigan Legislature Should Repeal Emergency Manager Law

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Detroit Free Press

Michigan Legislature Should Repeal Emergency Manager Law

Gov. Rick Snyder announced the appointment of Darnell Earley to replaced Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Jack Martin Jan. 13, 2015. Earley's previous position? The Emergency Manager of the city of Flint. (Photo: Gus Burns | fburns@mlive.com)

While all eyes and ears will be on the governor’s State of the State address this week, it is as much a seminal moment for the Legislature. For without them, nothing of any significance will happen.

As the Flint water crisis has attracted widespread national attention, the Department of Justice and Attorney General have announced independent investigations. The director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and his spokesperson have resigned. The governor has formed several task forces and declared a state of emergency. National media are on the ground.

Little has been said however about the law that made this possible, a law that gives a political appointee unfettered power to make decisions that will affect a community, without democratic accountability. This lack of check and balances on government is a civil rights issue.

The law does not require that an emergency manager have any expertise outside the financial arena and, to that end, allowed him to elevate the financial bottom line above all else. It enabled a revolving door of emergency managers in Flint with no ties to that community and yet unfettered power to make decisions that affect them. The suspension of democracy in these largely African-American communities makes this a civil rights issue.

We can now see the dire consequences. The absolute powers granted the emergency manager enabled him to stay the course in contravention of complaints about the water and adverse environmental reports, subverted the scientific processes, and led to the manipulation of that data to achieve the desired results.

The people of Michigan have already told the Legislature, via a referendum several years ago, that they do not want this law. Yet, the Legislature passed it again and did so with an appropriation to make it referendum proof. We need no better reason than what has happened in Flint to revisit that decision.

And yet, at a moment when some serious self-reflection should be happening, last week the Legislature rejected the recommendations of a local, bi-partisan education coalition, further delaying democratic control and refusing to create a Detroit Education Commission that would bring coherence to systems where 14 different entities open and close schools without any coordination.  

The Legislature passed this law. Its members govern this state. They are charged by the people with a sacred responsibility. Indeed, they hold a sacred trust. This responsibility, this trust, may have been poisoned for generations. It is certainly in deficit.

Regaining the confidence of the people of Flint, indeed of the people of this state, should now be uppermost in the mind of our elected officials. This cannot be easily accomplished.

Our Legislature serves all the people and must rise to the occasion by working to make a better future possible for the citizens of Flint, repealing the law that made this possible, and moving forward together -- with humanity, compassion, vision, and courage.  If they cannot do this then I hope and expect that the voters will remember.

Kary Moss

Kary Moss is executive director of ACLU of Michigan. 

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