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U-M panel focuses on Michigan's Emergency Manager law

Several elected officials and about a hundred others packed into a small conference room on the University of Michigan campus Monday night to talk about the state’s controversial Emergency Manager Law.

The Emergency Manager panel consisted of three elected Democratic officials: Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, Ann Arbor Representative Jeff Irwin and Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith.

Also on the panel was state Department of Treasury official Howard Ryan, one of the men responsible for crafting the new law. (Ryan jokingly referred to himself as "the bad guy" in the room.)

Audience members asked the panel dozens of questions about the new Emergency Manager law, which gives state-appointed managers broad powers to help stabilize financially stressed school districts and cities.

The questions ranged from "what happens if a law is repealed?” to questions and suggestions of new ways to fund and tax city governments. Ryan was specifically asked why there is no cap on an Emergency Manager's salary?

"It is one of the hardest, most difficult jobs imaginable," said Ryan. "You’re going into a very hostile environment where nobody wants you there, nobody, not even…I mean…nobody."

He says EMs have to make difficult decisions for a large complex city, and "you just can’t find people who will do it inexpensively." He adds that the average salary for an EM is around $150,000.

Ryan described the new law as a “kinder, gentler” way to deal with financially strapped cities and school districts…rather than have them declare bankruptcy.

But Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, whose city is currently under a state-appointed manager,  says the new law creates “an unequal playing field":

"The law puts more power and authority in the hands of appointed Managers than are allowed under normal laws for elected officials, or superintendents who are actually professionals, or in some cities city managers."

And he says there are some legal questions that will need to be answered down the road. "We’re dealing with so-called emergencies with tools that haven’t been court tested," explained Walling. "So we’re running into burning buildings with laws that could, could, I’m not a lawyer, could be reversed at a later point."

Emergency managers are currently in place in Flint, Pontiac, Benton Harbor and Ecorse. Two Michigan school districts - Highland Park and Detroit- are also under under emergency managers.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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