MSC hears arguments on emergency manager law

By Corey Williams

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- The Michigan Supreme Court finished hearing oral arguments Wednesday over whether a ballot petition that would repeal a state law designed to right financially troubled cities should go before voters.

Attorneys for Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility argued against allowing the emergency manager issue on the November ballot. Attorneys for the Stand Up for Democracy coalition argued it should go to voters.

A crowd of about 100 gathered outside the Hall of Justice chanted, "The people will never be defeated!"

The Stand Up for Democracy coalition submitted more than 200,000 valid signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility claimed the font size on the petitions was too small.

State canvassers deadlocked and Michigan's Appeals Court allowed the signatures, prompting the appeal to the state's high court.

The greatest hurdle for groups opposing Michigan's year-old emergency manager law might be persuading voters to repeal the legislation designed to right financially troubled cities, not a ruling by the state Supreme Court on whether the measure should be on the November ballot.

The deadline to get the wording on the ballot is Sept. 7.

"It could take a day or two or three, a week or two or three" for the justices to render a decision, said John Pirich, an attorney representing Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility. "This is the last court to consider this matter as far as we're concerned."

Supporters of repealing the law were bused from Benton Harbor, Flint and Detroit to Lansing for Wednesday's oral arguments.

Public Act 4 allows the governor to appoint someone to oversee a city or public school district's finances if a review team determines a financial emergency exists.

Flint, Benton Harbor, Ecorse and Pontiac have emergency managers, as do the Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights public school districts.

Each of the cities and school districts has a sizable budget deficit.

Opponents of the law point out that they also have sizable black populations.

Detroit, which avoided total state control of its finances by agreeing to partial intervention from Lansing, is more than 80 percent black. The school district reflects the city's demographics and has an emergency manager.

Stand Up for Democracy spokesman Greg Bowens believes voters across the state will be colorblind if the measure makes it to the ballot.

"You can never escape the question of race because of the unfair way this law has been applied to communities of color," Bowens said. "But now, the law looks like it's beginning to be applied in poor communities and that becomes the common denominator that cuts across race."

Signatures were collected from across the state, said the Rev. Charles Williams III, who's with the National Action Network's Detroit chapter.

"Many of our activists come from places like Ann Arbor and outer-ring suburbs," he said. "People are engaged. Democracy is at stake, whether a person is black or white."

But they have to persuade enough people to show up and vote, said accountant Phillip LaBarge of Flint, who wants to see the law repealed.

"If you talk to people in Flint, the people will say they want to vote; they care and voting is important," LaBarge said. "Less than one in five shows up to vote. They've reached a point that they don't see any change in the system."

He worries there are not enough checks and balances in Public Act 4.

Under the law, emergency managers can institute new, tighter collective bargaining agreements without negotiating with unions. Managers also can sell off city assets and remove mayors and city councils from financial decisions.

"It's not that I don't like the emergency manager law, it's that I think it gives emergency managers too much power," LaBarge said. "He can do whatever he wants whether others like it or not. It's not like we can vote him out if he does something awful. The only person who holds sway over him is the governor."

If Public Act 4 is suspended, emergency managers would no longer have the ability to unilaterally strip locally elected leaders of their power or toss out union contracts. Michigan's emergency manager law would at a minimum revert to Public Act 72 of 1990 -- leaving the state-appointed officials on the job but with fewer weapons to battle financial crises.

It likely would take emergency managers longer to fix the financial problems facing the cities and schools they're assigned to run.

Published: Thu, Jul 26, 2012