Benton Harbor

Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio

We've been talking a lot about class, what it means, and how we define it.

We took a trip to St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. They’re called the Twin Cities, but they're different.

In Benton Harbor forty-three percent of families live below the poverty line.

In St. Joseph it’s six percent.

And, families in St. Joseph earn more than twice as much as their neighbors across the river.

Here's a video produced by Meg Cramer and Mercedes Mejia who spoke to residents on both sides of the river.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Super close mayoral race

City Commissioner James Hightower narrowly beat the incumbent Mayor Wilce Cooke. Cooke is likely to challenge the results, which came in 681 to 673, a difference of 8 votes. There were two write-in candidates who got a combined 8 votes. The state appointed an emergency manger to take over the city’s finances during Cooke’s second term as mayor.

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West Michigan reporter Lindsey Smith called in with these unofficial election results from the city of Benton Harbor.

In the race for Benton Harbor mayor, the city is reporting this result:

  • James Hightower has 681 votes
  • Wilce Cooke has 673 votes

It's a close race, so we'll have to watch how this one is "officially" called.

And whether the winner ends up being Hightower or Cooke, neither will have any official power.

The city is still under the power of state-appointed emergency manager Joe Harris.

Smith reports that all seven of Harris' proposed charter amendments in the city were voted down.

Water bills in Benton Harbor will jump at least 40-percent in November.

Benton Harbor’s water system has served the city and surrounding Benton Charter, St. Joe Charter, Hagar and Sodus Townships. Earlier this month Benton Township put its own system online.

The township decided to separate from Benton Harbor after years of mismanagement by the city.


Update 12:45 p.m.

Jeff Noel, a Whirlpool company spokesman, would not give Michigan Radio reporter Lindsey Smith a number. When pressed further about the job losses expected in Michigan, Noel said it would be “a commensurate amount."

10:06 a.m.

In a cost cutting measure, the Benton Harbor-based company Whirlpool says it will cut 5,000 jobs. There's no word yet on how many of those job cuts will be in Michigan.

Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith is following the story and will have more for us later.

From the Associated Press:

Appliance maker Whirlpool Corp. says it will cut 5,000 jobs in an effort as it faces soft demand and higher costs for materials.

The jobs to be cut are mostly in North America and Europe. They include 1,200 salaried positions and the closing of the company's Fort Smith, Ark., plant.

The company expects the moves will save $400 million by the end of 2013.

Whirlpool also says its third-quarter net income more than doubled to $177 million, or $2.27 per share, from $79 million, or $1.02 per share. Adjusted earnings of $2.35 per share fell short of analyst expectations for $2.75 per share.

The company, whose brands include Maytag and KitchenAid, has been squeezed by higher costs for materials such as steel and copper.

Bloomberg News reports that Whirlpool employs 71,000 people around the world "at 66 manufacturing and research sites.":

Whirlpool follows European rival Electrolux AB (ELUXB) with a more muted outlook for the year. The Swedish company said today that it will deepen cost cuts after lowering a forecast for growth in Europe and North America this year. Whirlpool said reductions in Europe and North America account for about 10 percent of all employees in those regions. The company has a global workforce of 71,000 at 66 manufacturing and research sites.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In April 2010 the State of Michigan appointed an emergency financial manager for Benton Harbor to prevent the city from going bankrupt.

The mood has changed and it is not as adversarial as it was a year ago,” Benton Harbor City Commissioner Bryan Joseph said after a town hall meeting Wednesday night.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

A federal appeals court judge heard arguments Tuesday in a case against the city of Benton Harbor and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The dispute is over a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course that’s already operating in Benton Harbor. Three of the golf course's holes were built on public Jean Klock Park along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Mercedes Mejia

The City of Benton Harbor says the beach season at Jean Klock Park was a success this year.

But some residents are upset that 22 acres of park land is now used by Harbor Shores Golf Course (see slideshow above to get a sense of how it looks).

The City of Benton Harbor says the golf course has created jobs and provides revenue for the city, but some people argue it’s not enough.

Julie Wiess is with Protect Jean Klock Park.

 “It’s gone through with very little scrutiny actually, of the numbers that have been presented as far as job creation, as far as the amount of development or revenue that will be generated from this development and it’s all pie in the sky and no one has really taken a sharp pencil and figured whether this is realistic," said Wiess.

Tomorrow at 1:30 p.m., a group of Benton Harbor residents will argue in federal appeals court that the golf course developers should not have been given permits they received to build on park land.

Harbor Shores Development is already operating the championship golf course; the opponents say the environmental permits allowing the development were not fair.


The legislative sponsor of the state’s six-month-old emergency manager law says it has cleared the way for the decisive actions needed to help severely stressed cities.

State Representative Al Psholka’s district includes the city of Benton Harbor.

He says Benton Harbor’s emergency manager did not have the authority he needed to fix the city’s finances before the new law took effect in March.

 “We’ve seen some rapid progress in Benton Harbor. There's challenges there, but if you look at the budget, the budget is balanced. There is a projected surplus next year of $400,000. Yes, they had to make some tough choices, but Benton Harbor is in a much better position: a position to go back to local control with a balanced budget," said Psholka.

Psholka was on the Michigan Public TV show “Off the Record.”

Opponents of the law say it robs citizens in takeover communities of their right to choose their local officials.

Organizers of a petition drive say they are close to collecting enough signatures to put a challenge to the emergency manager law the ballot.

A referendum on the law requires opponents to gather more than 161,000 signatures.

Amy Kerr Hardin is with the “Stand Up for Democracy,” the coalition trying to repeal the law. She says the state-appointed emergency managers are given too much power.

 "It takes away our elected officials. It’s crazy the stuff an emergency manager can do just by fiat," said Hardin. "They don’t have to ask any public opinion, and they don’t have to tell the public until after the fact – when they’ve done whatever it is they’ve done."

 Hardin says the campaign expects to turn in sufficient signatures by the end of October. That would put the question on the February 2012 ballot.

It would also suspend the law until the election.

The cities of Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac and the Detroit school district are being run by emergency managers.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor’s Emergency Manager says the city will be able to break even this budget year. Last year the city ran more than a million dollar deficit.

Emergency Manger Joe Harris says this year the city could run a $400,000 surplus.

“We’ve turned the corner. You don’t have to keep cutting if you have positive cash flow. Now we just need to expend or invest our money wisely.”

Most of those attending seemed relieved at the news. But following years of mismanagement, many residents remain skeptical.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

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.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Emergency Manager Joe Harris signed two orders this week to discourage city commissioners determined to fight his orders.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

One of the four petitions Benton Harbor City Commissioner Dennis Knowles filed to recall State Rep. Al Pscholka (R-St. Joseph) was approved by Berrien County election officials this morning.

Knowles needs to collect 6,718 valid signatures in Pscholka's district before the November 18th deadline. But the signatures are only valid for 90 days, so he has until that deadline to collect that many signatures before they expire.

A group announced plans today to ask voters to repeal Michigan's Emergency Financial Manager law.  Recent changes to the law give broad powers to state appointed financial managers.  The EFM's have the authority to void union contracts and strip power from local elected governments and school districts. 

Brandon Jessup leads a group called 'The Campaign to Build Michigan'.   He says the law violates the rights of Michiganders.  Jessup says his group hopes to get approval for petition language next month.  

He says they hope to collect enough signatures to get the question put on the ballot in 2012. 

The mayor of Flint is expected to take a step this week toward asking the state to review his city's finances. It's a move that could potentially lead to a state appointed emergency manager taking over control of the city.   

The Flint Journal reported over the weekend that Mayor Dayne Walling plans to ask the Flint city council to consider requesting a state  review of the city's finances.   

 It's a move the mayor reportedly hopes will give him or the city council the power to alter city union contracts.   It could also lead to the appointment of an emergency manager.  

Less than a decade ago, Flint's finances were run by an emergency financial manager.    But recent changes in the law have given emergency managers much more power, including the ability to effectively strip  elected officials of their authority and throw out union contracts.  

Flint is struggling with a large projected budget deficit, and recently sold bonds to pay off a portion of the city's debt.

Benton Harbor continues to make headlines in national news as the city works to stabilize its finances.

Joe Harris was appointed as Emergency Manager last April by former Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Since then, Governor Rick Snyder has signed into law the expansion of an Emergency Mangers' power. Under the law, emergency managers can strip power from locally elected officials and dissolve union contracts.

Joe Harris is the first emergency manager to take advantage of the new law.

Michigan Radio's Jennifer White spoke with Harris. Here's the interview.

During the interview, Harris said he wanted to correct the record - that he didn't strip the elected officials in Benton Harbor of their power. Harris says their power was effectively stripped when the new Emergency Manager bill was signed into law by Governor Snyder:

"In that act... mayors, commissioners, and chief administrative officers of any city that was under the control of an emergency manager lost their authority.

I never stripped them. And so the news report that's all over the country that I stripped them of their authority is incorrect. They had no authority.

The only authority that they can have is the authority that's provided to them, or is given to them by the Emergency Manager."

On April 14th, Harris issued this order.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Election officials in Southwest Michigan rejected language for a recall petition against State Representative Al Pscholka this morning. They rejected the language because they said it wasn’t clear enough.

Benton Harbor City Commissioner Dennis Knowles filed the recall petition. Knowles wants to recall Pscholka for supporting the state’s new law that gives emergency managers more power over cities and school districts with major financial problems.

Knowles says the new laws “trash democracy.”

 “For specific reasons, that it allows super powers for dictatorship for a emergency financial manager; doing away with municipal governments and school boards.”

The law has provisions that could allow an emergency manager to ask the governor to remove elected officials from office.

Pscholka's response

Pscholka says most of people he talks to in Benton Harbor say they support the law. 

“Most of them really are kind of sick and tired of the financial mismanagement, the patronage, and really what some folks would describe as corruption.”

He says residents in Benton Harbor are being used as political pawns. He notes the city has had financial problems for several years.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

People came from as far away as Wisconsin to protest Governor Rick Snyder’s appearance in a parade through St. Joe and Benton Harbor Saturday afternoon. The governor of Michigan is invited to be the Grand Marshall of the parade every year.

“They asked me some time ago to participate in this wonderful festival and event and I’m happy to be here. And to the degree that people are exercising their democratic rights, I respect that. But it’s mainly about a quarter of a million people having a great day enjoying a wonderful part of Michigan.”

About 150 protesters mixed in with those gathered to watch the Blossomtime parade. They followed Snyder throughout the parade chanting “Recall Rick now!” and “Shame!” But there were some cheers of support mixed in with the demands to recall Snyder.

Official Photo

Governor Rick Snyder plans to act as the grand marshal of the annual Blossomtime Grand Floral parade in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, this saturday.

The Detroit News is reporting that groups are planning to protest the parade.

From the Associated Press:

Gov. Rick Snyder is scheduled to serve as grand marshal of the annual Blossomtime Grand Floral parade in southwestern Michigan.

A West Michigan lawmaker has decided not to take part in a parade in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph Saturday because protests are expected at the event.

State Rep. Al Pscholka says the Blossomtime Parade is not the place to protest Michigan’s new Fiscal Accountability Act.

Demonstrators are expected to rally against the recent actions of an emergency financial manager in Benton Harbor, where the elected city commission was stripped of all its powers.

Pscholka, a Republican from Stevensville, says in a written statement the parade is a wholesome community event and not the forum for a political sideshow conducted by professional agitators.

A staff member in Pscholka’s office says the representative has left the state for a family event and is not available for further comment.

Governor Snyder will be the Grand Marshall at the Blossomtime Parade.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Elected city leaders in Benton Harbor are calling on Governor Rick Snyder to remove the city’s state-appointed emergency financial manager.

Snyder approved broader powers for emergency financial managers earlier this year.

Benton Harbor’s city commission adopted a resolution (full resolution available here) declaring those new powers unconstitutional.

Thursday Benton Harbor’s emergency financial manager Joe Harris rescinded that and any further resolutions adopted by elected city officials (full order available here), in accordance with an order he issued earlier this year.

Harris stripped power from elected city officials in March. That included the power to adopt resolutions, even non-binding ones.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor’s Emergency Manager says he hopes to get the city back on solid financial ground by the middle of next year. People in the community are still trying to figure out where they fit in to Joe Harris’ plans.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Politicians and national media have been parachuting into Benton Harbor lately. They’re talking about the city’s emergency manager, Joe Harris. Harris was the first emergency manager in Michigan to exercise broad new powers under a state law passed last month, essentially removing power from elected city officials.

This week I sat down with many of those officials and Benton Harbor residents to hear what they think of the situation.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The emergency financial manager of Benton Harbor, Joe Harris, says the city will have a budget surplus in the coming fiscal year.

Harris says that’s because the new powers given to emergency managers allowed him to do his job more effectively.

Harris says that means he could leave Benton Harbor after two years of work, rather than the five years he originally thought it would take to turn the city around.

But not everyone is thrilled with the work Joe Harris has done, or with the new laws that granted him sweeping power over Benton Harbor.

Some big names have focused on Benton Harbor recently.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

About 200 people attended a rally in Benton Harbor against Joe Harris, the city’s emergency financial manager. Joe Harris was appointed to take over the city’s troubled finances last year by Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Harris is the first Emergency Manager in Michigan to exercise broad new powers Governor Rick Snyder signed into law last month. The law gives emergency managers more power to fix financial problems in school districts, cities and villages. Three cities (Benton Harbor Ecorse and Pontiac) and Detroit Public Schools are run by emergency managers.

The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus will hold a press conference today at noon with the Reverend Jesse Jackson in Benton Harbor.

Also in attendance will be Congressman John Conyers and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

Joe Harris, the city's state-appointed emergency manager, recently stripped power from local officials in Benton Harbor under the state's new emergency manager law.

The group says they will work to uphold voting rights as they plan to challenge the legality of the Emergency Manager law.

Fred Durhal, the chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, said they "oppose this Draconian legislation.":

"Our coalition is prepared to ask the Justice Department to review this legislation and we will fight litigation to challenge its constitutionality," said Durhal.

Reverend Jesse Jackson is quoted in the media advisory saying, "the wind from Benton Harbor is blowing toward Detroit. This legislation usurps democracy by taking away voters rights in Michigan. Our constitution protects democracy, this inalienable right is non-negotiable."

Photo of Robert Bobb, Former Emergency Manager at DPS
Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

The controversial emergency financial manager law gives broad powers to state-appointed officials who are brought in to help struggling cities and school districts.

It was signed into law last month by Governor Rick Snyder, now, as MPRN's Rick Pluta reports, two Detroit pension fund boards have filed a lawsuit challenging the state's emergency financial manager law. They say the law "illegally threatens contracts and collective bargaining agreements."

Under the law, emergency managers can strip power from locally elected officials and dissolve union contracts.

Pluta spoke with the emergency manager in charge of the Detroit Public Schools, Robert Bobb. He says these legal challenges won't help: 

"Because the legislation as it is is to kind of help escalate the resolution of problems and issues in localities and in school districts and any type of prolonged litigation does not really help advance what needs to be advanced to right the ship," says Bobb.

The Detroit News reports that the lawsuit was filed by Detroit's General Retirement System and the Police and Fire Retirement System:

The law "represents an imminent threat to the constitutional rights of plaintiffs and other members of the Detroit Retirement Systems," the funds' lawyer Ronald A. King wrote in the lawsuit.

More than 300 local officials and prospective emergency managers are in Lansing today and tomorrow to be trained in the state's new fiscal crisis law.

The law gives sweeping authority to emergency managers named to run school districts and local governments that can no longer pay their bills.

Terry Stanton of the Michigan Department of Treasury says the goal is for the state to intervene earlier to avoid the drastic step of a state takeover.

Benton Harbor appears to be the first city to come under a sweeping new Michigan law that allows emergency managers to take almost complete control of municipalities and school districts.

Benton Harbor emergency Manager Joseph Harris issued an order this week preventing city officials from doing anything more than calling meetings to order… adjourning them and approving minutes of meetings.

In other words, their decision-making powers have been suspended.

A financial emergency was declared in Benton Harbor in February 2010 by then-Governor Granholm after the city’s budget deficit grew by double digits.

A state board named former Detroit auditor general and chief financial officer Harris to run the city… with the power to control all spending and renegotiate union contracts.

Union leaders are critical of Harris’ move to take most powers away from city leaders. The AFL-CIO represents administrative workers and others in Benton Harbor.

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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:

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: