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Proposal 1 challenges state emergency financial manager legislation

By Tui Rademaker, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 16, 2012

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a six-part series detailing the six statewide ballot proposals Michigan voters will consider on Election Day.

While many voters will be focused on the presidential candidates this Election Day, Michigan residents will also have the opportunity to weigh in on Proposal 1, which will present voters with a referendum of Public Act 4, more commonly known as the emergency manager law.

The proposal will allow voters to decide whether to overturn the controversial policy, which was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in March 2011, and grants the state government extended power to appoint managers as overseers of elected officials in districts suffering from financial or organizational distress.

Emergency managers have been appointed to several cities in the last year, including Flint, Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Ecorse and Muskegon Heights. Detroit Public High Schools are also under the control of an emergency manger. Residents in many of those cities have expressed discontent with some of the law’s effects, such as the manager’s complete political power within the city government.

Voters are closely divided on the issue as about 45 percent of registered voters support keeping the law in place, about 48 percent support its repeal and about 8 percent are undecided, according to a telephone poll of 600 registered Michigan voters conducted between Sept. 10 and Sept. 15 by the Marketing Research Group — a Lansing-based political communications firm.

Along partisan lines the numbers were more decisive — about 40 percent of self-identified Republicans, about 34 percent of independents and about 24 percent of Democrats supported the measure, according to the Marketing Research Group study.

A similar poll conducted last month by the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the Ford School of Public Policy found that 38 percent of local leaders support the law, 30 percent are in opposition, 21 percent are indifferent and 11 percent are undecided.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said the 2011 expansion of the previously existing emergency financial manager law gave a dangerous amount of power to unelected officials while not setting enough criteria for their appointment.

“The Legislature went too far when they amended the emergency manager law last year,” Irwin said. “If we’re going to take the extreme measure of replacing elected officials with an appointed manager from the governor’s office, there should be objective criteria … rather than subjective criteria.”

Irwin added that it is difficult to predict voter support of such a measure, stating that the average constituent typically doesn’t closely follow municipal finance. Still, he noted there are many people in districts with financial managers who have expressed concern about how public services will be affected by the change.

In a video statement released on Oct. 10, Lt. Governor Brian Calley called on voters to consider the necessity of financial organization in troubled municipalities.

“This is a tool that is in place in order to give an early warning indicator to provide for additional help and security for schools and cities that fall into financial distress.” Calley said. “This is a critical part of the reinvention of the state of Michigan.”

In a panel discussion at the University last year, Howard Ryan, the director of legislative affairs in the Michigan Department of Treasury, said though municipalities oppose having Lansing-appointed officials, dire financial situations within certain districts have made it necessary.

“(The) provisions (are) there to allow flexibility for local units of government,” Ryan said last year.

LSA senior Rachel Jankowski, chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said the group does not have an official stance on Public Act 4 given the fact that it isn’t a decisively partisan issue.

However, speaking personally, she said she understands Snyder’s push for intervention when situations are dismal.

“If there’s a failing institution we need someone to come in and kind of revamp it,” Jankowski said.

The University’s chapter of College Democrats did not return requests for comment as of Tuesday afternoon.