The state action against Benton Harbor’s citizens has received little attention from the mainstream media. The Republican leadership of Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder, and legislative leaders passed Public Act 4, Fiscal Accountability Act, which literally takes over the administration of towns or other local government entities, such as school districts, if the state finds a financial emergency. This takeover involves the state hiring an emergency financial manager who literally runs the town without input from local elected officials. The emergency manager can nullify contracts, hire whomever he pleases, reallocate funds, fire any employee or board member and sign any contacts he deems appropriate. Local elected officials are left with no power; in effect, local government officials were suspended.
As of August, “the number of local governments and school districts under the control of the Governor now stands at seven. That number is ten if you count the de facto state control represented by consent agreements in Detroit, Inkster and River Rouge. Taken together, well over half of Michigan’s African-Americans have been stripped of their local voting rights” (Sugar Law Center of Economic and Social Justice).
What this has meant for Benton Harbor is that the emergency financial manager, Joseph Harris, has appointed new members of the town’s planning commission. Hence, it will be easier to pass through the economic development plans by large corporate interests without town consent.
What may stop state action is the attempt to place a referendum on the November ballot to vote on Public Act 4. If the voters reject the law, then the state will revert to an older law, Public Act 72, which is not as draconian as the current law. Under the old law, emergency financial managers do not have the power to break union contracts, which has proven to be one of the most controversial parts of the law.
The actions of striping citizens of their duly elected officials may be offensive to many Michigan residents. However, the radical act of taking over a town government has been cast in terms of the state being financial responsible. The words, fiscal responsibility, play well with voters. It is very unclear at this point if the majority of voters will support the nullification of Public Act 4.