Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 1, 2012

Emergency manager law under more fire

Opponents want measure suspended


LANSING — Emergency managers appointed by the state to run Michigan's financially struggling cities and schools soon could lose much of their sweeping power, at least temporarily, as an effort to overturn a controversial law moved forward Wednesday.

A coalition called Stand Up for Democracy said it turned in more than 226,000 voter signatures to state election officials in hopes of giving voters a chance to overturn the law in the November election. If state election officials decide that at least roughly 161,300 of the signatures are from valid voters — a decision which could be made within the next two months — the law approved in 2011 would be suspended while awaiting the vote.

That could have major ramifications in Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac, the Detroit public school system and a few other places that already have or could soon have state-appointed emergency managers in charge of their troubled finances. A review team is currently analyzing Detroit's finances to determine if an emergency exists.

Gov. Rick Snyder's administration and Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette say that a suspension of the law would mean Michigan reverts to its previous law for emergency managers, adopted in 1990. Emergency managers would stay on the job, but wouldn't have the powers granted in 2011 revisions — such as the ability to toss out union contracts and strip authority from locally elected officials.

Snyder's administration is worried about the consequences of derailing the law, including the possibility it would become more difficult and take longer to resolve financial problems in locations where local leaders already demonstrated they couldn't fix the issues on their own. Snyder and other Republicans backed the 2011 changes in hopes of allowing emergency managers — in the cases where they are needed — to do their jobs more effectively and quickly.

"Unintended consequences could be severe and would not be in anyone's best interests," said Sara Wurfel, Snyder's spokeswoman. "The places where we're working right now, the whole reason we got there was that word 'emergency.' Those communities and schools were in circumstances that in some cases hadn't been seen before because of how dramatic they were."

Critics of the law, including some labor unions and community groups, say the state is overreaching and undermining democracy. Some critics argue that if Public Act 4 is suspended, state-appointed emergency managers should be sidelined at least until the election — leaving only locally elected leaders in charge of a community's finances.

"All the powers would rest with the democratically elected government," said Greg Bowens, a spokesman for Stand Up for Democracy, a coalition that opposes the law.

Courts likely would have to decide some aspects of what a suspension of the law might mean.

The Snyder administration says that previous decisions made by emergency managers under Public Act 4 would stand if the law is suspended. But that would raise questions in several locations, including Benton Harbor, where the state's emergency manager stripped local officials of decision-making power last year. It's not immediately clear if the city's elected leaders would regain their powers — or possibly share them with the emergency manager — without some kind of a legal fight.

"There are some unanswered questions," Wurfel said. "This is unchartered territory."