The impoverished former industrial town of Benton Harbor has become a flashpoint in the controversy over the new law that allows the governor to appoint Emergency Managers with virtually unlimited authority over local governments.
On Thursday the state-appointed Emergency Manager Joe Harris used the expanded powers granted by the new law to issue an order banning the city commission from taking any action without his written permission.
Benton Harbor City Commissioner Juanita Henry says her constituents are angry and looking for help, but without the power to hold meetings the city commission can’t even provide an official venue for citizens to ask questions and get answers.
“They are using Benton Harbor as a test case,“ Henry said. “If they have disenfranchised the people so badly they just don’t respond to anything, they can do this all over the country.”
Community activist Rev. Edward Pinkney said that many Benton Harbor residents only learned that their city government had been sacked by reading about it in the paper days later.
Though home to the corporate headquarters of appliance giant Whirlpool, the city lost its last manufacturing plant this year, almost half the population lives below the poverty line and the public lakefront has been privatized as part of a luxury golf development backed by the Whirlpool corporation.
(An appeal of the conversion of the city park is underway in federal court.)
Gov. Jennifer Granholm approved a state takeover of Benton Harbor’s finances last year after the city needed help meeting payroll.
Relations have been strained between the elected officials and the Emergency Manager Harris. In January the city commission tried to oust him after criticizing his expenses and his plans to cut the fire department.
“People should be paying attention to what is happening here because Benton Harbor is GROUND ZERO for the future of what is to become of our state under Governor Rick Snyder,“ said Carole Drake, who fought the privatization of Jean Klock Park in state court.
Locals in Benton Harbor said they will work to repeal their state Rep. Al Pscholka, who sponsored the bill, as well as State Sen. John Proos and Gov. Rick Snyder who also approved it.
A group called Heartland Revolution is planning to rally at the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce and march to City Hall on Wednesday, April 27th to protest the takeover of the city.
The total suspension of power for local officials has brought Benton Harbor’s situation into focus for other Michigan communities, where people now worry that growing budget problems could mean that they will face similar loss of assets and control.
“I have been in touch with people all over the state via e-mail, face to face and Facebook … this is a hot
topic all over the place and our community FB page A Referendum to Reject PA 4 has quickly quadrupled in size in just the last 24 hours as we have reposted the link with our different contacts,“ said Traverse City activist Betsy Coffia. “I think Benton Harbor really shook some folks up.”
Coffia said that repeal advocates are talking with legal experts about how to draft official language for a petition.
According to information from the Secretary of State website, in order to have a referendum on a newly enacted law petitioners must gather signatures from 161,305 people — five percent of the number that voted in the last gubernatorial election.
The signatures must be submitted within 90 days of the end of the legislative session in which the bill was passed. If the group manages to gather enough certified signatures, the Emergency Manager law would be automatically suspended until a repeal vote can be held on the next general election date.
“Education is key as the groundwork is laid for an organized referendum to repeal,” Coffia said. “This motivates me to educate as many people as I can so that we will be fully prepared to sign our name as registered voters repealing this law.”