Michigan Emergency Manager Law Could Go To Ballot

Opponents of Michigan's sweeping emergency manager law have gathered enough signatures to put a repeal measure on the November ballot, state elections officials said Wednesday.
by | April 26, 2012
 

LANSING, Mich. — Opponents of Michigan's sweeping emergency manager law have gathered enough signatures to put a repeal measure on the November ballot, state elections officials said Wednesday.

The finding outlined in the memo sent by elections staff to the State Board of Canvassers could put into limbo emergency managers overseeing four communities and three school districts across the state. The board is set to vote Thursday on whether the issue will go on the ballot. If it does, the law will be suspended immediately until the November election.

Gov. Rick Snyder's administration says emergency managers would be allowed to remain in place while the current law is on hold because the state would revert to a 1990 law authorizing their use. But they would have far weaker powers than those outlined under the current law.

It wasn't until the current law passed last year that emergency managers were authorized to toss out union contracts and strip authority from locally elected officials, though Treasury spokesman Caleb Buhs said local officials could lose their salaries under the old law. He added that putting the repeal on the ballot doesn't stop more emergency managers from being appointed in cities and school districts found to be under financial emergencies.

The ballot decision will affect emergency managers in the Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights school systems and the communities of Pontiac, Flint, Ecorse and Benton Harbor. It isn't expected to affect an agreement on finances reached last week between Detroit city and state officials.

Elections staff said in the memo that the Stand Up for Democracy coalition collected 203,238 valid voter signatures, about 40,000 more than needed. The coalition includes unions worried about managers canceling local labor contracts as well as voters unhappy that managers can push aside elected officials.

"This report clearly shows that people across the state want the opportunity to vote to repeal the emergency manager dictator law," coalition director Herb Sanders said in a release.

A group called Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility is challenging the petitions, saying they're not legal because the heading is printed in a smaller type size than required. The board will consider the challenge in making its decision. If it decides the challenge is legitimate, the repeal won't get on the ballot.

The board — which has two Republicans and two Democrats by law — also could tie, essentially keeping the issue off the ballot. Supporters may then sue to get it before voters.

Supporters of the emergency manager law say it's working to stabilize financially stressed cities and school districts. The Muskegon Heights school board recently welcomed the appointment of a manager to help the 1,400-student district dig out from under a $9.4 million deficit.

But the law has been a sore point in some communities, including Benton Harbor in southwest Michigan. City commissioners there plan to meet Monday to decide what direction they will take if the law is put on hold.

"We are going to have to really work strategically," Commissioner Dennis Knowles said.

Emergency manager Joe Harris has been the Benton Harbor emergency manager under the old and the new law, and Knowles said he and other commissioners have been denied access to City Hall information since Harris arrived on the scene. Harris has been undisturbed by such criticism.

"He still will be making all the financial decisions. ... There is only so much power that will be restored," Knowles said.

The Detroit-based Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice represents 28 people from a number of Michigan counties who have filed a lawsuit challenging the emergency manager law. Tova Perlmutter, the center's executive director, said backers are ready for a hard-fought campaign if the repeal gets on the ballot.

The board also is expected Wednesday to deal with many of the other six measures submitted for the ballot, ranging from a union-backed effort to put a ban on right-to-work laws in the state constitution to a proposal that would require a supermajority vote in the state House and Senate to raise taxes.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

Michigan Emergency Managers and Consent Agreements

Red markers shown below represent governments and agencies under emergency management. Yellow markers signify consent agreements. Click the icons for additional information.

 

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