Joe Harris

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.

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:

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:

A state panel has named an emergency financial manager to run the city of Benton Harbor. Governor Granholm declared a financial emergency in Benton Harbor in February.

State officials say Benton Harbor's financial troubles include a deficit that has been growing by double digits. The city asked for an emergency infusion of cash from the state last month to make its payroll.

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

Terry Stanton is a spokesman for the state Treasury. He says drastic action is needed at times to set a city's finances right.

"The state is only as financially strong as the units within the state and, unfortunately, sometimes it's a long ways down the road before the state can step in," says Stanton.

Benton Harbor is the third city in Michigan being run by an emergency manager. The others are Pontiac and Ecorse.

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