Lee: Time to end emergency manager law

Shawna J. Lee

Underlying the Flint water lead poisoning crisis is the deeply flawed Local Financial Stability and Choice Act of 2012, or Public Act 436. This law establishes an emergency management structure — best known, until recently, from its imposition on the city of Detroit — that gives Gov. Rick Snyder significant autonomy in appointing emergency managers accountable to the governor, rather than local voters.

Voters know that Public Act 436 is an affront to democracy, but it’s also become a tool for perpetuating and deepening racial inequalities.

Many Michiganians will recall the statewide referendum in a similar emergency management structure was rejected: the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act of 2011, or Public Act 4. This act allowed the governor to appoint and oversee an emergency manager without the input of voters, the state Senate or other elected government officials. Public Act 4 was passed by the Michigan Legislature and signed by the governor in six weeks, eliminating the potential for voter input.

Public Act 4 was repealed in the general election of 2012. Yet weeks after the repealed, the Legislature passed Public Act 436, which effectively retained the emergency management model of Public Act 4. It was approved by the governor and took effect in 2013.

The legacy of Snyder’s law is now clear. Flint’s emergency manager is not an aberration. Since 2009, 11 Michigan cities — representing about 10 percent of Michigan’s population — have been under emergency management.

However, emergency management does not affect all Michigan residents equally.

Flint, Detroit, Benton Harbor, Highland Park: under the Snyder administration, most of the cities who have had governor-appointed emergency managers have been majority African-American.

In examining the implementation of emergency manager laws, a pattern emerges. While about 14 percent of Michiganians are African-American, cities under emergency management were on average 71 percent African-American.

By contrast, in a state that is majority (79 percent) white, cities under emergency management had populations on average that were only 21 percent white.

In fact, analysis of Census data shows 52 percent of African-Americans residing in Michigan have been under the governance of emergency managers at some point since 2009.

An implication is that a majority of African-Americans in Michigan have been denied local control through democratically elected city council and mayoral authority. The emergency manager policy , in its current operation, denies citizens — primarily African-Americans — local, elected democratic control.

Emergency manager laws disproportionally affect residents of urban areas with high poverty rates.

These policies impact vulnerable populations, who often have the fewest resources to exert political power.

The Flint water crisis is an example of what happens when government leaders circumvent accountability. It’s time to repeal Public Act 436 — as was the will of Michigan voters in 2012 — and return to elected local control.

Shawna L. Lee is an associate professor at University of Michigan School of Social Work.