Emergency Manager of Benton Harbor strips power from elected officials

Apr 16, 2011

Joseph Harris, the state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager of Benton Harbor, has stripped control from city officials.

It's the first time an emergency financial manager has used broad new powers granted to them by state legislators and Governor Rick Snyder.

Harris issued an order "prohibiting all action by all city boards, commissions and authorities, except as authorized by the emergency manager."

Here's the language from the order:

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED AS FOLLOWS:
1. Absent prior express written authorization and approval by the Emergency Manager, no City Board, Commission or Authority shall take any action for or on behalf of the City whatsoever other than:

i) Call a meeting to order.
ii) Approve of meeting minutes.
iii) Adjourn a meeting.

2. That all prior resolutions, or acts of any kind of the City in conflict herewith are and the same shall be, to the extent of such conflict, rescinded.

3. This order shall be effective immediately.

The Detroit News reported that Harris issued the order because the city has been ineffective at governing:

Benton Harbor has struggled with a controversial trash hauling contract, lawsuits related to the contract, new competition for water services and city officials who sometimes clashed to the point that meetings dragged on for hours, Joseph said.

"I have seen for more than 30 years the mismanagement of funds and personnel in the city," Joseph said. "Infighting has been going on for decades."

It probably comes as no surprise that the relationship between Harris and government officials has been contentious.

In 2010, according to South Bend NBC affiliate WNDU , City Commissioner Duane Seats compared Harris to a disease within the city after Harris fired nine police officers, and worked to eliminate the city's fire department:

"Right now there's no cure for him, but I decree and declare that these city commissioners that we have now and with the citizens help we will find a cure. We will find a cure for this disease that we have here in the 49022 that's called Joe must go," said Seats.

In a statement published on the Daily Kos, Michigan's AFL-CIO president Mark Gaffney called the order from Harris "sad for democracy in Michigan": 

"It comes after the announcement of Robert Bobb in Detroit ordering layoff of every single public school teacher in the Detroit Public School system. With the stripping of all power of duly elected officials in Benton harbor and the attack on Detroit school teachers, we can now see the true nature of the Emergency Manager system."

One elected official in Benton Harbor wasn't bothered by Harris' order. City Commissioner Bryan Joseph was quoted in the Detroit News saying, "It doesn't bother me, I'm in favor of it." According to the News, state-appointed emergency financial managers are working in four places in Michigan: