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Attorney: Water crisis strengthens case against EM law

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

The legal challenge against Michigan’s emergency manager law on claims that it racially discriminates has only been bolstered by the Flint water crisis, according to the head of a national civil rights group involved in a lawsuit against the measure.

“It strengthens our case, it strengthens our conviction that removing democratic values and the democratic processes could only lead to disaster,” said Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Warren, an attorney, and the New York-based center are advisers in the lawsuit that charges the emergency manager law is unconstitutional.

Flint, Detroit school crises stir fight over EM law

Warren was in Detroit on Sunday evening, where he spoke to about 300 at the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights’ 36th annual dinner at Marygrove College. The Human Rights coalition is a nonprofit that has fought for civil rights and is protesting the mass water shut-offs in Detroit homes, along with opposing the emergency manager law.

Rev. Ed Rowe of Detroit’s United Methodist Church, who attended the dinner, praised the lawsuit against the emergency manager rule, describing it as “fighting for our democracy.”

The Michigan law allows the state to appoint emergency managers who have the power to legislate for and govern entire municipalities and school districts deemed to be in financial distress. Flint was under emergency-manager rule when the drinking water became contaminated. Flint changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water to the Flint River to cut costs.

The Flint water crisis is the outcome of emergency manager rule, Warren said.

“Those of us who saw this law and what its potential was were hearing things like this scenario in which a governor-appointed manager starts managing from the perspective from cost and not from the perspective of what’s good for the people,” Warren said. “That’s why we don’t allow corporations to run our country. They are all about the bottom line. It really is the death of our democracy,” he said

Gov. Rick Snyder has consistently defended the emergency manager law, including in an interview Friday with Bloomberg News.

“There’s ways to improve” the emergency manager legislation, Snyder said. “Fundamentally, it’s worked in many other places.”

Snyder has said state environmental officials were to blame for the Flint water crisis, attributing their actions to “a total lack of common sense.” In the Bloomberg News interview, Snyder wouldn’t speculate on whether a mayor- and-city-council-governing structure would have detected the water problem sooner than an emergency manager.

The legal challenge over the emergency manager law, which first was passed in 1990, continues, though the lawsuit faced a setback last year. In November, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh swept aside most of it. But he said opponents made a “plausible” claim the law could violate the U.S. Constitution by having a disproportionate impact on communities with large black populations.

State officials have said they are unable to comment on the specifics of the litigation, but strongly maintain the law is constitutional and based solely on finances.

The lawsuit says emergency management has impacted half of all black Michigan residents, denying their fundamental right to vote and to the governance of an elected body. Meanwhile, 2 percent of Michigan’s white residents have lived under the authority of emergency managers.

The group that filed the suit recently asked a federal appeals court in Cincinnati to order a trial in the case.

laguilar@detroitnews.com

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN