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Real emergency

How the new emergency financial manager legislation could hamper democracy



Our comrade and occasional collaborator Russ Bellant has been spending a lot of time in Lansing recently, keeping an eye on the emergency financial manager (EFM) legislation that's moving through the Capitol like a freight train rolling downhill.

Bellant is a retired city of Detroit employee who, since the late 1980s, has made a side career out of shedding light on this country's far right, authoring several books about its attempts to pull the machinery of government in its direction.

So we gave him a call the other night to talk about Gov. Rick Snyder's big push to make it easier for the state to take control away from local elected officials. As usual, Bellant was a fount of insight.

He talked about particulars of the legislation that aren't getting much attention, such as one version of a bill coming out of the Senate Education Committee that would prohibit elected officials of an entity taken over from running for office for six years. A 10-year ban for those officials was originally included in, but then stricken from, the package of EFM bills passed by the House along mostly party lines.

Whether some version of that provision is included in the final legislation that goes to the governor remains to be seen.

Also receiving scant attention, Bellant says, is that an emergency financial manager can seek bond financing without making the process public. There'll be no one to question possibly inappropriate relationships between the EFMs and, say, the private firms that handle the issuing of bonds.

"It can be done without any accountability, even though it will fall on taxpayers to repay that debt," says Bellant.

And then there's a provision that provides broad legal immunity to EFMs.

That's of particular concern to state Rep. Lisa Howze, who noted in a statement that the proposed legislation "allows the emergency financial manager to break or change any of the state government's existing contracts and leaves local governments completely liable for any resulting civil claims or lawsuits."

Moreover, Bellant — and many others — think we should be concerned about the fundamental attack on democracy this legislation poses.

As Shanelle Jackson, another Democratic state representative from Detroit, pointed out when she voted against the measure: "This plan is a slap in the face to the democracy our nation was founded on. It removes elected officials from power and ignores the rights of our voters to choose their local leaders, and instead opens the door for one person to be in control of running our city. Recent global events have shown us the consequences of one person abusing their power and ignoring the will of the people."

Maybe this should be called the "Too Stupid to Govern Yourselves" legislation.

Bellant points out another concern: This measure could be used as a powerful political hatchet by the governor's appointed state treasurer. Might a vulnerable mayor, facing a potential re-election challenge from a popular city council member, maneuver behind closed doors to have himself appointed EFM, eliminating the threat of being voted out of office?

Might a well-connected Republican county executive, worried about an election challenge from a Democratic mayor, pull strings to arrange an EFM takeover, effectively cutting off the mayor's political legs?

"It's not just this governor or this governor or this treasurer that we have to be concerned about," Bellant points out. "If it passes, this law could still be with us decades from now, serving as a dagger against local government."

Bellant, a fierce critic of Detroit Public Schools EFM Robert Bobb, also contends that there's no guarantee that, given the structural nature of the problems being faced — especially rapidly falling property tax revenues — that emergency financial managers can do a better job than elected officials

Which got us to thinking, how are things going with Bobb's efforts to mop up the DPS' red ink?

The answer to that, in large part, can be found in a Feb. 28 article in The Bond Buyer, which reports that the district this week will be seeking what amounts to a one-year loan of $231 million that's "urgently needed to make payroll through August."

Hmmm. And here we thought that the role of an emergency financial manager was to eliminate debt, not create more of it.

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