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Benton Harbor called "ground zero" in fight over emergency manager powers

Benton Harbor's state-appointed emergency manager Joe Harris. Harris was the first emergency manager to use broad new powers granted to him by the state legislature and Governor Rick Snyder.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor's state-appointed emergency manager Joe Harris. Harris was the first emergency manager to use broad new powers granted to him by the state legislature and Governor Rick Snyder.


The emergency financial manager of Benton Harbor, Joe Harris, says the city will have a budget surplus in the coming fiscal year.

Harris says that’s because the new powers given to emergency managers allowed him to do his job more effectively.

Harris says that means he could leave Benton Harbor after two years of work, rather than the five years he originally thought it would take to turn the city around.

But not everyone is thrilled with the work Joe Harris has done, or with the new laws that granted him sweeping power over Benton Harbor.

Some big names have focused on Benton Harbor recently.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow delivered a scathing report on the city and the emergency-manager law; Reverend Jesse Jackson showed up to call the new rules “unconstitutional;” and other critics are lining up.

 Reverend David Bullock of the Detroit chapter of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-Push Coalition says "we’re starting in Benton Harbor, because Benton Harbor is ground zero.

So why is Benton Harbor getting so much attention from outside of Michigan?

Former Whirlpool CEO Dave Whitwam says that "people like a personal platform. And if they can find a place to develop it, they come.”

Whirlpool’s global headquarters is in Benton Harbor.

Whiwam says once they're here, they don't seek out the full story:

"One thing we’ve learned is people who come leave very quickly. And they can come to our community or they can write about our community and take whatever shots they want, but they don’t have to live with it."

Whirlpool has its own share of controversies in Benton Harbor – everything from moving manufacturing out of the area, to the massive tax breaks it claims and development plans.

Whitwam retired from Whirlpool seven years ago, but still lives and works in the area. He believes the outspoken few may not represent what could be a silent majority in favor of the changes they’ve seen since Harris was appointed emergency manager of Benton Harbor by Governor Jennifer Granholm’s Administration.

“If you’re a resident of Benton Harbor, if you have family in Benton Harbor, you understand that they cannot keep spending beyond their means," said Whitwam, "when they do, it can’t provide the public services that a community and its citizen wants. So I suspect there’s pretty broad support for Mr. Harris and what he’s doing.”

The man who has that job, Joe Harris, is a Detroit-native, and a former city auditor general.

He says when he came to Benton Harbor there were a lot of problems:

“The finance director had no accounting background," said Harris. "No financial background…each year, the budgeted appropriations exceeded budgeted revenues…the city’s total revenues were less than the city’s total expenditures by $9 million, this is a city that has total revenues of $6 million.”

Harris does not have the best working relationship with the city commissioners.

And with the new, broad, emergency-manager rules, he recently limited their powers to do anything except to call a meeting, approve minutes and adjourn a meeting.

He says the nine commissioners, which he would like to see voters reduce to five, never really looked for viable answers to the city’s insolvency:

“The only answers they were looking for were 'how do we get more revenue?' Constantly. The mayor wants to bring a casino here so we can have more revenue," said Harris. "If I can get a surplus here without bringing in more revenues, and not reduce city services, than the people are going to appreciate that more."

Harris says he will present a budget with a million-dollar surplus for next year and now feels he could leave the city relatively soon and in a place where it could run efficiently.

And he says the stars aligned for him to achieve that because, in part, of the new emergency-manager law.

But opponents of the law have been particularly concerned with an emergency manager’s ability to unilaterally dissolve union contracts and replace elected officials.

City Commissioner Marcus Mohammad says the commission was elected by the people, and Joe Harris wasn’t:

“The resident now is side-swiped, and their input, their opinion, their freedom of speech, really, is now thrown underneath the rug,” said Mohammad.

Reverend David Bullock says there’s more to taking care of a city than upending its political and financial structure:

“You do have to keep your financial house in order, but the question is how do you do that? Do you do that at the expense of disenfranchising democracy? Do you do that at the expense of taking away people’s voice? There are ways of doing that without disenfranchising people,” Bullock said.

Bullock and other activists say they plan to file a lawsuit against the state regarding the constitutionality of the emergency manager law.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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