State takeover of Michigan cities slowed by courts

Michigan's emergency manager law runs afoul of open meetings act

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Legal challenges have cast uncertainty on the fate of Michigan's Emergency Manager law, signed last year by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. A March 20 ruling by Ingham County Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, pictured here, restored Flint's elected officials to office, but only briefly. The state's attorney's appeal reversed the decision, causing confusion amongst Flint residents and leaving the city's $25 million budget gap untended.

Al Goldis/AP

It’s not clear who is in charge of Flint, Mich., these days.

Earlier this month, a state circuit court judge unseated the city’s emergency manager, Michael Brown, and voided all decisions he’s made since being appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder four months ago.

The ruling found the state violated the Open Meetings Act when appointing Brown in December and is just the latest in a series of legal challenges that could freeze Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law.

As reported by iWatch News, the law inspired by free market think tanks is the GOP-led legislature’s attempt to solve decades of municipal budget woes in Michigan, spurred by the flight of manufacturers and compounded by the housing crash.

Under the law, the governor can appoint one person to run city affairs with expansive powers to fire elected city officials, privatize services, break union contracts, sell public assets and violate city charters.

While court challenges proceed, state elections officials are reviewing 227,000 signatures that opponents to the law delivered to Lansing on Feb. 29. If the state approves 162,000 of them in early May, the law would be frozen until voters decide its fate in a referendum next year.

Flint, Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Ecorse, and school districts in Detroit and Highland Park have emergency managers.

Detroit is in the late stages of a financial review that is also under court scrutiny. The state has moved away from appointing an emergency manager and instead is advocating the creation of a financial team with similar powers, which has drawn the ire of city officials and residents alike.

In Flint, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina on March 20 sided with a city public employee union president who brought the open meetings challenge. Mayor Dayne Walling and the city council were returned to office to face Flint’s $25 million deficit.

The state challenged the opinion, and a week later, an appeals court panel reversed Aquilina and put Brown back in office until the case is heard.

“It’s a yo-yo game,” said Brenda Purifoy, one of several former city employees wondering whether she’ll get her job back. The day after Brown took the job, he fired Purifoy from her post as city ombudsman and closed the department, a violation of the city’s charter.

Since her appointment in 2006, Purifoy had fielded thousands of complaints and investigated misconduct in the police, water, and elections departments. After the Aquilina ruling, she received a call from the city attorney telling her where to pick up the keys to access her old office. But until the court case is resolved, Purifoy’s job will remain up in the air.

Meetings regarding Brown’s appointment were not public because the team reviewing the appointment was not a public body, according to Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for state Treasurer’s office.

Walling, Flint’s mayor, disagreed in an email saying “residents deserve the same open financial review process that is being afforded to other Michigan cities.”

An open meetings challenge has also disrupted the work of the state’s 10-member team reviewing Detroit’s finances. Judge William Collette handed down two rulings in the last month halting the review process until the state conducted public meetings — a decision that the state’s attorneys have appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Detroit review team decided not to recommend an emergency manager after months of closed-door deliberations over the city’s future, proposing instead a consent agreement that would allow state and city officials to appoint a nine-member board with powers similar to that of an emergency manager to address Detroit’s $200 million deficit and deteriorating credit.

Mayor Dave Bing called the state’s proposal a de facto takeover that “waives the ability of elected officials to contest any aspect of the agreement.”

Following Collette’s ruling, state appointees restarted their review process of Detroit — this time in public. Proceedings have been marked by protest and angry comments from residents.

“They’ve literally declared war on us, and we are assembling our troops to fight back,” said resident Sandra Hines during public comment.

The first of several public meetings ended with the review team declaring a severe financial emergency in the city, but made no recommendation on how to move forward.

Governor Snyder hosted a town hall meeting in Detroit March 28 to push for a consent agreement by the end of the month. A major sticking point in ongoing talks between Snyder and the city is the degree of power that local officials will retain in budget decisions.

Meanwhile, a challenge to the constitutionality of the law itself is working its way through the courts.

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