Flint water and Detroit Schools raise doubts about emergency manager law
What you don’t want is a solution that ends up aggravating the problem. But that seems to happen all too often.
That’s my skeptical -- bordering on cynical -- response to many of the well-intended brainwaves policymakers concoct to deal with problems, either in business or, more commonly, in public policy.
That brings us to the tainted water debacle in Flint – where that description seems especially apt.
In Flint, Detroit and in other mostly poor and mostly black cities and school districts, the state’s putting emergency managers in charge appears to be one common factor out of many that have contributed to a profound loss of public trust.
In the case of Flint, a series of emergency managers has run the city off and on again for years, in effect taking over all legal authority from the elected mayor and city council. In 2002, Gov. John Engler appointed one who stayed in charge for a couple years.
Later, when Flint found itself again unable to manage deteriorating financial troubles in 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed the first of four emergency managers for Flint, one of whom served twice. One of more of these made the crucial decision to switch the city from clean Detroit water to cheaper stuff from the Flint River.
That water proved to be discolored, foul-tasting, and contaminated with bacteria. Even worse, it corroded old pipes causing the water many residents drank to be heavily polluted with lead. Flint residents are unlikely to ever trust an emergency manager again.
Resort to imposing emergency managers has not been a purely Republican policy. During the eight-year tenure of Gov. Snyder’s Democratic predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, six Michigan cities or school districts were given emergency managers. Of course, it was during this period that the financial downturn resulting from the Great Recession of 2008-09 tore up local finances across the state.
Those in favor or the emergency manager system argue it enables communities to get their finances back in order -- and gives poor communities that have been badly managed a chance to overcome the effects of local politics and poor decisions.
But critics point out that an emergency manager disenfranchises local voters and undoes the checks and balances of a more normal democracy. Emergency managers, after all, are essentially all-powerful where spending decisions are concerned.
Having an emergency manager in place also displaces local authorities who are likely to be more responsive to citizen viewpoints. Moreover, critics charge, emergency managers tend to overlook citizen concerns and public health in favor of financial discipline –which is precisely what some say happened in Flint.
Detroit has been a valuable example for both points of view.
In the case of the city of Detroit, decades of population loss augmented by the corrupt administration of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, dwindling revenues and vast legacy costs resulted in a near-collapse of the city’s finances.
As a result, Gov. Rick Snyder in March 2013 appointed Washington, D.C. bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr emergency manager. The net result of Orr’s widely-praised tenure was a speedy and successful bankruptcy proceeding from which the city emerged at the end of 2014. Today, Detroit is showing real signs of revival.
In the case of Detroit, however, Orr’s work was facilitated by a corps of highly competent and influential local leaders, including Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. From what I can gather, Flint’s emergency managers had no such web of powerful local assistance. Flint did not go through bankruptcy, nor did the city ever get national media attention until the water crisis.
In the case of the Detroit Public Schools, a local institution that has been troubled for even longer than the city, financial managers going all the way back to Engler’s time have all proven incapable of getting either the finances or the educational quality of a deteriorating school district under control, in large part perhaps because of persistent population and revenue losses.
The institution of emergency financial manager itself has undergone considerable revision since first used in the 1980’s. When Snyder took office in 2011, he worked with the legislature to pass a stronger version of the emergency manager law.
That law was repealed by a statewide vote of the people the next year, only to be promptly replaced by a stronger law, which added a small appropriation immunizing it from repeal.
I’d guess in the aftermath of the Flint disaster, thoughtful people will begin to call for more changes in the emergency manager law.
What is now clear is that imposing an emergency financial manager is hardly a silver bullet for whatever serious local government problems might arise. As an artificial disruption of normal democracy that puts at risk public trust in the workings of government, any EM should be put in place for only a short time.
Otherwise, there seems to be a real threat emergency managers will tend to ignore citizen concerns. The position needs to balance purely financial concerns with an alert sense of and concern for the health and welfare of those affected.
Any successful emergency manager also needs to be buttressed by a capable group of local leaders willing to come together to help make this work in their own communities.
Changes certainly need to be made. Otherwise, more and more of us are bound to feel that emergency managers may well look like yet another example of the solution aggravating the problem.
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