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Michigan Residents File Lawsuit Challenging Emergency Law Installing Unelected City Managers

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A group of Michigan residents have filed a suit challenging a controversial new state law that allows the governor to appoint an unelected emergency manager or corporation to take over financially distressed towns and cities and effectively fire elected officials. The law empowers these unelected managers to sell off public property, shred union contracts, and privatize government services, without any input from local voters. Michigan now has unelected emergency managers running the schools in Detroit, as well as the cities of Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor. We speak to longtime Detroit resident, Edith Lee-Payne, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and John Philo, legal director of the Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, which filed the lawsuit against the state of Michigan. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A group of Michigan residents sued the state Wednesday to challenge a controversial new law that allows the governor of Michigan to appoint an unelected emergency manager or corporation to take over financially distressed towns and cities and effectively fire elected officials. The law empowers those unelected managers to sell off public property, shred union contacts, and privatize government services, without any input from local voters.

Some supporters have described the measure as a form of “financial martial law” needed to help restore financial stability to fiscally challenged cities and school districts. But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit question the constitutionality of a measure that gives the state the power to strip the right of residents to elect mayors, city councils and school boards.

AMY GOODMAN: Michigan now has an unelected emergency manager running the schools in Detroit, as well as the cities of Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor.

For more, we’re joined by two guests in Detroit. Edith Lee-Payne is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, longtime Detroit resident, grandmother of two students in the Detroit school system now being run by an emergency manager. We’re also joined by John Philo, legal director of the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. The Sugar Law Center filed the lawsuit against the state of Michigan.

Let’s first go to John Philo. Lay out this lawsuit you have just filed.

JOHN PHILO: Well, what the lawsuit’s about is we’re putting in front of the court to make the decision of whether or not local citizens have a right to a democratic form of local government, whether local citizens have a right to elect their local officials, because as it stands under this law, the governor and the state legislature is saying we do not. They’re saying that we can have a new form of government in which they appoint your local government, which is one person, and that that person is not accountable to local electors, to local citizens. There’s no right of petition. They have no voice. It takes away entirely their role in what we consider a democratic system. People assume they have a right to a democratic form of government in this country, at all levels—at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level. This is the first experiment that we know of where we’re bypassing that entirely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And John Philo, there have been some occasions here on the East Coast where a particular school board was taken over by the state government. It’s almost always been in cities or towns that are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. I’m curious. This much more unprecedented effort here in Michigan, how many of these towns are largely minority towns that they’ve moved in to take over from the—to remove the right of the voters to elect their own officials?

JOHN PHILO: Each of them. And we believe it’s intimately related to the law, in that this is—this is disenfranchising and saying that these folks just don’t have enough responsibility to run their own local affairs. It’s directed at the low-income communities and communities of color. Those are the ones that are going to be hardest hit. Those are the ones that are hardest hit. The presence of the law itself, too, is impacting the local governments in other communities, also, again, low-income communities of color. And it’s forcing them into considering whether they should enter into a consent agreement before they have an emergency manager appointed. We don’t think—I mean, we think it’s part and parcel.

And, you know, I did some rough numbers, and it came out to something like 66 percent of the state, of the communities that are predominately black or African American, are in severe financial distress. Sixty-six percent of our population in this state could lose their right to vote in local elections and to have local government.

I think it’s important to know that this law, it’s not about the finances that we’re contesting. We had an emergency financial manager law previously. What had changed is now it’s an emergency manager law, and it expands the scope of that emergency manager not only over financial matters—this isn’t about them balancing the bucks—but it allows them to appoint and replace, you know, building commissioner members, historical commission members, human rights commission members. These are matters of policy. Those are people that come from—that traditionally in our country, anyway, you know, are expressed through local elected officials and through the voters, who have a right to pass referendum, to recall an elected official, but also to put them into office to carry out those policies. It carries over into whether or not a strip club will be located in a community or how close it would be to a church. I can’t fathom how that relates to a financial issue in the local community.


JOHN PHILO: There’s nobody that would dispute—we have—I’m sorry. Go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to bring Edith Lee-Payne into this.


AMY GOODMAN: You are a longtime Detroit resident. You marched with Dr. King in Detroit in 1963, on the March on Washington in August of ’63. How did you become a plaintiff in this lawsuit?

EDITH LEE-PAYNE: Well, I’d been, obviously, very concerned about this emergency manager or financial manager for some time. I’m active within my community in a number of ways. And one of our council members, JoAnn Watson, had put together some community events where these issues were raised, and I wanted to become a part of it. And so, for that reason, I did.

AMY GOODMAN: You have compared what’s going on in Detroit to what happened to New Orleans after Katrina. Explain.

EDITH LEE-PAYNE: Well, actually, I did not make that kind of comparison, but what I did make a comparison to was, in 1999, the state did a takeover of our schools months after we had had an election. The school board had little time to do anything before this takeover occurred. For six years, the state-appointed representative and an appointed reform board actually put our school system in a greater deficit and greater problems. After the residents did—voted for a referendum, we were able to get our voting rights back. And that occurred in 2005. We’ve been trying to improve the conditions that happened that the state caused. Now they want to come back and do it again. So that’s actually the comparison that I’m making, where I see that this emergency manager and financial manager, and the one that we had—the recent one, Robert Bobb—did the same thing. He just put our finances, our whole school structure, in complete chaos. And now he’s gone. And there’s no recourse in this legislation. We can’t go after him to do anything, and we didn’t ask for him in the first place.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you talk to fellow—

EDITH LEE-PAYNE: I see that—

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m sorry. When you talk to fellow community leaders—and the idea that this is spreading now across the entire state, in these direct takeovers, and it’s obviously fueled by a Republican-controlled legislature, your—what are they telling you? What’s their reaction to this, as it’s been characterized, martial law being perpetrated in your state?

EDITH LEE-PAYNE: Well, the fact that—when I’ve spoken with community leaders, as well as our legislators from Detroit, they speak as—and say that they’re powerless because of the Republican-controlled House and Senate. There is very little left for us to do but to exercise our constitutional right to vote and/or recall. That’s the only redress we have. We’re angered by it. We’re frustrated by it. And when we know that there is already laws and legislation, that constitutions are in place for us, to protect us, that give us the rights to the legislative process, and the fact that we have the branches of government that are now—the separation of powers that are also being compromised, we have—and my personal position is, when we have these things that are there for us—these are the laws that were made for us by our Founding Fathers—why would they be challenged? Why would they be compromised, especially when these legislators and our governor took an oath, this year, to uphold the very thing that they’re violating? That’s disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: One early critic of the Michigan emergency manager law was the journalist Naomi Klein, author of the book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism_. I bills”>interviewed her in March as the Michigan legislature was preparing to vote on the law.

NAOMI KLEIN: So it starts with the school boards, and then it’s whole towns, whole cities, that could be subject to just being dissolved because there’s an economic crisis breaking collective bargaining agreements. It also specifies that—this bill specifies that an emergency manager can be an individual or a firm. Or a firm. So, the person who would be put in charge of this so-called failing town or municipality could actually be a corporation.

AMY GOODMAN: Whose government they dissolve, a company takes over.

NAOMI KLEIN: A company takes over. So, they have created, if this passes, the possibility for privatization of a whole town by fiat. And this is actually a trend in the contracting out of public services, where you do now have whole towns, like Sandy Springs in Georgia, run by private companies. It’s very lucrative. Why not? You start with just the water contract or the electricity contract, but eventually, why not privatize the whole town? So—

AMY GOODMAN: And what happens then? Where does democracy fit into that picture?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, this is an assault on democracy. It’s a frontal assault on democracy. It’s a kind of a corporate coup d’état at the municipal level.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Naomi Klein. John Philo, head of Sugar Law Center, legal director there, so what’s going to happen now with this lawsuit, not only involving Detroit, but in these cities throughout Michigan?

JOHN PHILO: I’m sorry, could you say that again? I had a little problem.

AMY GOODMAN: What is going to happen now, John—John Philo, what is going to happen now around Michigan with your lawsuit this week?

JOHN PHILO: Well, we’re receiving, you know, support across the state. One thing I echo with Edith is that, I mean, we could have had a thousand plaintiffs, or we could have had more than tens of thousands, I really truly believe, and we took a cross-section. Right now there’s a petition drive going on across the state that’s gaining a lot of momentum. But I saw in the paper, anyway, that the state Senate Democrats have voiced support for the lawsuit. I think that this lawsuit—I mean, this law has to either be repealed or it has to be changed. There’s a tremendous amount of concern throughout every community in this state. And it’s not just—the concern is not localized to just the communities that have an emergency manager now, and it’s not just urban areas. We’re getting support from the UP and from the northern Michigan, which is, you know, an area that traditionally is not—it’s just not known for progressive politics, but there’s good and decent people up there who know their constitutional rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, John Philo, legal director of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice in Detroit, and Edith Lee-Payne, longtime Detroit resident, civil rights activist, one of the lead plaintiffs suing the state of Michigan over its emergency manager law.

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