Possibility of emergency manager in Detroit prompts civil rights concerns

January 5, 2012

As a Michigan panel considers whether a state-appointed emergency manager should take over Detroit’s debt-laden budget, some residents and leaders are arguing that the move would disenfranchise black voters.

“How come all of the jurisdictions put under emergency management are majority African American? Has anybody noticed that?” asked Rep. John Conyers (D), who has represented Detroit for 47 years. “There seems to be a racial aspect, a racial component of the application of this law.”

Under a newly strengthened law allowing the governor to appoint emergency managers over local governments, appointees are now running other financially bereft cities with large black populations — including Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Ecorse and Flint. If Detroit is added, a sizable proportion of the state’s black residents will be living under emergency managers.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said that he has no interest in running Detroit and wants the city to be responsible for itself.

“Our role is to be a supporting resource,” Snyder said in a video he released last month. “My goal is to avoid appointing an emergency manager, because that’s a failure point.”

But if the city meets certain conditions, appointment of an emergency manager is the next step under state law.

Snyder understands he is stepping into a political minefield if an emergency manager is appointed, said Bettie Buss, a senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a public policy think tank. “There is no upside for the governor to appoint an emergency manager of Detroit, but the city is facing a crisis,” she said.

Mayor Dave Bing (D) said at a city council meeting Thursday that the city’s cost-saving measures are beginning to work, the Associated Press reported. He presented an update that highlights savings from 1,000 imminent layoffs, overdue payments from the Detroit Public Schools district and a corporate tax increase he says will mitigate a cash shortfall. He has also said his negotiations to rework the city’s union contracts are progressing.

Detroit owes bondholders, retirees, and other debtors more than $14.1 billion, according to a research council report.

The state law allows emergency managers to sell off city assets, restructure debt and break union contracts. But the managers also usurp the powers of local elected officials.

“It is the civil rights issue of our time. I didn’t vote for an emergency manager. I voted for a mayor. I did not give up my right to vote on the whims and fancies of a law that we believe is unconstitutional and immoral,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Fellowship Chapel and a civil rights activist in Detroit. “We view it as another step in the direction of voter suppression and vote oppression.”

Conyers sent a recent letter to the Department of Justice arguing that the appointment of an emergency manager to keep the city out of bankruptcy would violate the civil rights of Detroit residents. (Detroit’s school district is already under the control of an emergency manager.)

“My conclusion [is] that there is a racial component that is discriminatory and that is a violation of civil rights,” said Conyers, who also wants to hold Capitol Hill hearings on the constitutionality of Michigan’s practice of appointing emergency managers.

Local chapters of the NAACP have been fighting against the potential takeover along with labor union members, who are protesting the emergency manager’s powers to break union contracts.

Activists, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, also have been casting their opposition to the emergency manager in civil rights terms. Jackson has said that poor, minority residents of Detroit deserve the same “bailout” the federal government gave to the auto industry. Last weekend, Conyers gathered with Detroiters in a church to sing “We Shall Overcome,” and local residents are collecting signatures for an initiative that could put the emergency manager law, called Public Act 4, up for referendum. The law is also being challenged in court.

There are solutions short of placing Detroit under state control, researcher Buss said, such as giving city officials some powers of an emergency manager to deal with the fiscal issue.

“Part of the stated goal of [the emergency manager] act was that local elected officials and local unions would have every incentive to come up a solution themselves,” Buss said. “Something serious has to be done.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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