The emergency manager idea isn't all bad

Oct 21, 2013

Government dysfunction and the shutdown dominated the headlines this week, but for some Michigan cities, crisis has been the theme for years.

Five cities -  including Detroit - are run by state-appointed emergency managers.

In Benton Harbor, the story is shifting to how to return the government back to local control.

Let me get this out– understanding some of you might start yelling at your radio - or computer screen.

I’ve been a supporter of Michigan’s emergency manager law.

Well – sort of.

I live near Benton Harbor where there have been two “EMs”  - as they’re called  - since 2010.

It’s been a really bumpy ride.

The first one – Joe Harris – was extremely unpopular with city commissioners but he did straighten out some finances.

The second – Tony Saunders – appears to be connecting with local officials much better and can now start talking about ending the EM phase.

That’s because the city’s deficit, $3.4 million in 2010, is now down to $1.2 million.

In other words, it’s been working.

No one really loves to say that – because the principle of emergency management is somewhere between anti-democratic and obnoxious.

We’ve been telling voters in those communities the folks they elected don’t have power until the state says they do.

Yuck.

But when you live in or near the places where emergency management’s in effect, you may be less purist and more practical – preferring stable finances over mismanagement and crisis.

The weird thing, though, is it’s very hard to create emergency manager laws that instill a key ingredient – namely that EMs, mayors and elected officials have to work together.

If EMs are too restricted, they can’t fix the mess.

But if they’re dictators, that gets in the way of transferring power back.

There has to be some cooperation and it’s not easy to legislate that.

Just look at Detroit - where Mayor Dave Bing is publicly stating his dissatisfaction with emergency manager Kevyn Orr.

The city of Pontiac is technically past its fiscal crisis, but now it’s struggling with whether a new city manager will have near total EM-like powers until further notice.

In Benton Harbor, I should be careful not to over-sell the idea that this city could be a poster child for a good transition.

It might not be.

But this week – there have been signs of progress.

In a State of the City speech, the mayor said nice things about the emergency manager – and set a tone for the road ahead.

That road will include a governor-appointed transition advisory board that will oversee the switch back to local government.

As a citizen, all I can say is – let’s hope the controllers – and the controlled - have the sense and skills to work things out.

The alternatives are ongoing dictatorship – or something a lot of us know too well – bad government.