In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Ingham County court, citizens from across the state are asking that Michigan’s Emergency Manager law be declared unconstitutional.
The Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act allows the governor to appoint Emergency Managers to take over local units of government, fire elected officials, sell off or privatize community assets and even dissolve whole cities.
The measure was rushed through the Republican-controlled legislature this spring as a move to protect against widespread municipal bankruptcies, with some of its supporters referring to it as “financial martial law.”
But in legal arguments filed in court this morning a group of 25 plaintiffs say the right of citizens to elect their local officials is guaranteed in the state Constitution and financial stress is not a legitimate ground for scrapping the democratic process.
“This is an infringement on basic democracy,” said plaintiffs attorney John Philo of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. “It really is an experiment in a new form of government — one person rule.”
The complaint alleges that the law “violates the rights of local voters by attempting to delegate law-making power and the power to adopt local acts to unelected emergency mangers, by suspending the rights of local electors to establish charters and to elect local officials, and by imposing substantial new costs and expenses upon local municipalities without providing new revenue,” the group argues.
The law is so extreme, the plaintiffs say, that it “establishes a new form of local government, previously unknown within the United States or the State of Michigan, where the people within local municipalities may be governed by an unelected official who establishes local law by decree.”
“Because it is such a radical change in how you govern a city it is untested waters legally,“ Philo said, “but if the Constitution is to have any meaning we think the law should be struck.”
“A financial emergency has never been found to be equivalent to invasion of a foreign government where you can make martial law and suspend the Constitution,” he added.
Philo said that according to the law’s criteria for state intervention 75 percent of Michigan communities could be subject to Emergency Managers.
According to the law local communities are required to pay the salary, benefits and expenses of the appointed Emergency Manager and all costs of any employees or contractors hired by the Emergency Manager as well as legal costs and insurance.
These expenses have been substantial. In Benton Harbor Emergency Manger Joe Harris is paid $11,000 per month. Former Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb made $425,000 during his final year on the job. The plaintiffs argue that requiring communities to pay these costs violates the 1978 Headlee amendment which requires the state to reimburse local governments for any new state mandated programs.
Plaintiff Emma Kinnard of Benton Harbor lost her elected officials when Emergency Manager Joe Harris used his new powers to strip the Benton Harbor City Commission of all decision making power in April.
Kinnard said that while she didn’t always agree with Benton Harbor’s local officials she was able to stay informed about city business and participate in city politics, but now there is no mechanism for public participation or oversight of local government, she said.
“This is not democracy this is dictatorship,” she said. “They talk about other communist countries … this is following the same things they were doing. How can this be democracy when there is no accountability … just one person in power?”
“Benton Harbor is a test center,” she said, “If it goes through in Benton Harbor they are going to start doing this all over the state.”
The suit names as defendants Gov. Rick Snyder and state Treasurer Andy Dillon.
There is also a federal suit challenging the Emergency Manager law, filed in April by Detroit’s city pension systems. That suit challenges the authority of Emergency Managers to change city charters and remove trustees from office.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) and others have argued that the Emergency Manager law violates Michigan and U.S. Constitutional prohibitions against laws that break contracts. Earlier this month the law was used by Pontiac’s Emergency Manager to void the city’s contract with its police dispatchers. A lawsuit over that action is also expected.
Press conferences are scheduled for several cities around the state — Lansing, Benton Harbor, Flint, Detroit and Monroe — to announce the lawsuit today. The plaintiffs have also launched a website.
The full legal complaint here.