Benton Harbor commissioners against emergency manager debate strategy

Jun 8, 2011

Elected officials in Benton Harbor are debating the best way to deal with their state-appointed emergency manager. Two Benton Harbor commissioners support the city’s emergency manager, Joe Harris. The remaining seven are united against Harris.

Harris was appointed more than a year ago to fix Benton Harbor’s finances. Since then he’s taken away the commission’s powers to take action or pass resolutions.

These seven commissioners all believe Harris’ power will ultimately prove unconstitutional in court. But they don’t agree on what they should do next.

City Commissioner Dennis Knowles says they should keep passing resolutions anyway.

“We are the representatives of the people…Once you give up any turf, give up any land or any position you lose that permanently. I would ask that we continue to represent as we have been doing on behalf of the people we serve, not on behalf of what they say.”

Juanita Henry is one of a handful of commissioners who said at a meeting this week they don’t think it’s a good idea to keep defying Harris’ orders.

“Sometimes it was good results, but most of the time it wasn’t. I think that we’re on a different way of going at it now and I think we’re on a winning path.”

Some commissioners say they’re worried Harris will petition the governor to remove them from the commission if they keep fighting the orders.

Knowles says he doesn't expect resistance will be easy. Today in a letter to his colleagues, Knowles broke away from the commission.

"You all are cowards and I am going to have to move forward with or without you, therefore I now make this formal to you all.

Don't expect anymore information, do not call, do not email, do not even speak to this Commissioner because you have lost any confidence that I thought I had in you and you are doing nothing more than sending mixed messeges (sic) to the people."

Knowles wanted to pass a resolution asking the state for clarification of Joe Harris' quarterly budget. Harris says he mistakenly sent the state a quarterly budget when what he really needs to send is a 6 months budget report. That's not due until the end of September.

City commissioners are frustrated in part because city workers aren't allowed to attend their meetings without Harris' permission. So they say the budget information they want, city workers aren't able to give them.