May 10 2013

The Atlantic: Does Michigan’s Emergency-Manager Law Disenfranchise Black Citizens?

In Michigan, emergency skews black.

State-appointed emergency managers currently run Detroit along with five other Michigan cities and three school districts. While the cities under emergency management together contain just nine percent of Michigan’s population, they contain, notably, about half of the state’s African-American residents.

Michigan’s Public Act 436 allows the governor to appoint emergency managers with near-absolute power in cash-strapped cities, towns, and school districts. Emergency managers can supersede local ordinances, sell city assets, and break union contracts — leaving local elected officials without real authority.

“It totally decimates democracy,” Detroit resident Catherine Phillips says of state takeover. “We have the right by federal law to allow us to go and choose by way of voting who we want to represent us in municipalities and school districts. By implementation of this dictator law, they have taken that right away.”

Phillips is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in March against the state. She and a group of politicians, unions, activists, and residents from affected districts argue that PA 436 violates their constitutional right to equal protection.

The suit highlights the paradox of American municipal governance. Local government is deeply ingrained in the ethos of American democracy, from colonial-era New England town hall meetings to New York City’s experiment with people-powered budgeting. But it is not an inalienable right. The U.S. Constitution guarantees all states a “republican government,” but gives states power to grant — or not grant — home rule to municipalities.

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