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Forum highlights opposition to emergency manager law

A protest against PA 4 at Governor Snyder's residence in January
Laura Weber
Michigan Public Radio Network
A protest against PA 4 at Governor Snyder's residence in January

Opponents of Michigan’s emergency manager law called it illegal, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic at a public forum Tuesday night.

Detroit Congressman John Conyers hosted the often-passionate forum on the legality of Public Act 4 in Highland Park.

Conyers is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary committee. That committee’s staff issued a report finding that Public Act 4 violates the contracts clause of the US Constitution, because it allows emergency managers to breach collective bargaining contracts.

Congressmen Hansen Clarke and Gary Peters, members of the state legislature, and legal experts also testified about their opposition to the law.

Jocelyn Benson, Wayne State University law professor and former candidate for Secretary of State, says emergency managers are an end run around democracy.

“At the very least, in times of financial emergency, managers should be appointed with the consent of the citizens over which they’ll have authority,” said Benson, to wild applause. “And those citizens should not only have a say in who should be appointed, they should also have the authority to remove a manager who has abused their power.”

Benson says the law also violates “at least the spirit” of the Voting Rights Act because of its disproportionate influence on communities of color.

The Judiciary Committee report says that if the state appoints emergency managers for both Detroit and Inkster, more than half of the state’s African Americans will live in cities controlled by emergency managers.

But there was a lone voice defending the law. It was Benton Harbor’s emergency manager, Joe Harris.

My support of the emergency manager law has to do with stopping with the potential for bankruptcy,” said Harris, noting that municipal bankruptcy would have catastrophic consequences for everyone--including city workers and retirees.

PA 4 opponents say they’ve gathered enough petition signatures to put the law up for referendum—and they’ll deliver them to Lansing on February 29. If the state validates their petitions, the law would then be suspended until a vote in November.

But Governor Snyder and state lawmakers have indicated they would try to get back-up legislation in place if that happens.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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