“Emergency powers” dictatorship seizes a Michigan city

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - In one of his first acts under the new Emergency Financial Management law, which critics have described as a financial dictator law, Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder stripped the people of Benton Harbor, Mich., of their voting rights and their elected officials last week.

The order came just days after another Snyder henchman used new powers to initiate steps to violate contracts between Detroit Public Schools and its teachers and their union.

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joseph Harris took over Benton Harbor's finances last year, but under new powers granted to Gov. Snyder by the Republican-controlled state legislature, Harris has claimed unprecedented authority.

Appointed to takeover the predominantly working-class, African American city, Harris seized control over the duties and responsibilities held by Benton Harbor's elected officials, its commissions, and its financial resources.

According to media reports, over the past year Harris had already been sharply criticized for cutting fire department services in the city and for allegedly abusing his expense account.

One particularly disturbing controversy centered on the privatization of parkland owned by the city, which may subsequently be sold to build a luxury golf course.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow reported that Snyder's emergency powers law allowed Harris to take the city's attractive lakefront public land and give it to a group known as Harbor Shores, which has been linked to the local Rep. Fred Upton, a high-ranking Republican leader in the House of Representatives.

According to Maddow, the cost of an annual pass into the proposed golf course is projected to be about half the average annual income of the typical Benton Harbor resident.

Local media also reported last week that Joseph Harris personally reorganized a local government development agency that would have otherwise blocked permits to prevent the construction of the golf course. New members of the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and Planning Commission, appointed by Harris, seem inclined to go forward with the golf course.

In 2009, a conglomerate that included the Whirlpool Corporation (of which Upton is an heir), Harbor Shores, and a Whirlpool-owned real estate company tried unsuccessfully to gain control over Benton Harbor's lakefront parkland. That year, Benton Harbor residents called for a boycott of Whirlpool in response.

Residents of Benton Harbor have launched protest campaigns and joined statewide efforts to repeal the law and to recall Gov. Snyder.

Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. traveled to Michigan last week and joined protests against the governor's emergency powers. "The governor has no right to disfranchise the voters who voted for the mayor," Jackson told Fox 2 News in Detroit. "We shall take this case to the Department of Justice, if necessary to the Supreme Court."

Snyder and his appointees under the law have so far targeted majority African American communities.

Benton Harbor has been economically depressed for years, but when Whirpool abandoned the area for cheaper labor elsewhere, the city's fortunes grew dire.

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  • This is absolutely horrific. In America. A dictatorship. This douchbag governor just takes over and you would
    think it would make big BIG BIG news all over the country and ........crickets..... Rachel Maddow is the only
    person I've heard talk about it. WTF is going on here?

    Why isn't everybody in America jumping up & down &
    yelling their heads off about it. This is supposed to be
    a DEMOCRACY, y'all. Jesus Christ in heaven. Have we
    gotten to the point where we just calmly accpet dictatorship in this country? And whose city is next.????

    Posted by Eva Hatch, 04/27/2012 11:17pm (2 years ago)

  • No matter how the republicans and the governor try to justify this, IT IS WRONG! I'm going to spread the word to boycott Whirlpool and their products and start a movement against All Republicans in the US. There is no such thing as a good Republican. We will come together to push back against their Radical racist moves! To take away peoples voting rights? It may take some time, but once we vote the republicans out of power we are going to make sure the never ever under any costs get into power again. Republican Watch has just come into existence.

    Posted by darnell bradley, 04/06/2012 2:44am (2 years ago)

  • Harris and Bod needs to show the public their check stubs! Who pays their salaries?

    Posted by dottieC, 05/11/2011 9:30pm (3 years ago)

  • The Republicans of the state of Michigan, and the rest of the states won't be satisfied until the enitire country is in total ruin, and back to 1900. Not only does the Justice Department need to put a stop to this nazism the President of the United States needs to step in, and take the lead, just like Kennedy did in the early '60's when that whacko Wallace woudn't back done. If this isn't stopped, God help us all. I am a white male, age 66, and this has to STOP!

    Posted by M. McCartney, 04/25/2011 10:58pm (3 years ago)

  • The State of Michigan had a $billion plus deficit last year that was papered over with Stimulus money from the Obama administration. Many of the Republican legislators who passed the Emergancy Financial Manager law were part of that process and are thereby more fiscally irresponsible than Benton Harbor's elected officials. Snyder cut taxes on the rich this years, thereby acting fiscally irresponsibly. A city's fiscal deficit does not cause an emergency to the public health , welfare and safety, the only basis for taking the extraordinary measures of "suspending" democratic government. It's unAmerican.

    Both State and city deficits are due to loss of revenue from Michigan's one state recession of the last few years. Michigan should be bailed out as GM and Wallstreet were. Wallstreet was bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars. Just like Wallstreet, Michigan and Benton Harbor are too "big" to fail. Too important.

    Posted by charles, 04/25/2011 11:50am (3 years ago)

  • A lot of good taking it to the Supreme court will do, they are water boys for the extreme right wing.

    Posted by suziQ, 04/22/2011 3:28pm (3 years ago)

  • This sounds like an Enabling Act..

    Posted by Michael, 04/22/2011 2:05pm (3 years ago)

  • Half of this article is completely untrue. Harbor Shores was already in operation before emergency manager Mr. Harris took over. Jean Klock park is still open to the public, there are a couple a holes in the park, but in areas that were previously not used. Harbor Shores now also mantains, and made beautiful, a park that had fallen into disrepair, and at their own expense.
    In addition to that, "Harbor Shores" is not just a golf course, it is an entire community, which by the way, The City of Benton Harbor receives 100% of the tax revenue from. If that was Mr. Harris's doing, then he did a good job.

    Posted by vlkrause, 04/22/2011 1:40pm (3 years ago)

  • @Sallie

    Thanks for the comment. A couple of clarifications. The article DOES note that Harris was appointed last year before Snyder's election. However, as the article also notes, the powers he is exercising now are given to him by Snyder under the new emergency powers law.

    On the beach property. The people behind the rich country club golf course project have wanted that public beach for years. Lord knows they don't want the residents of Benton Harbor hanging our next door when their rich white clients are golfing on a sunny summer afternoon.

    And it is acquiring this beach property that Benton Harbor and the racism and classism behind it are symptomatic of how B.H. residents have been treated for decades. Now Snyder is giving political payback to West Michigan cronies by giving them power to steal it by throwing out voting rights and elected officials.

    I am glad you want to talk about whether or not the emergency powers law is a good idea, but Snyder doesn't. We need to talk about the racist, classist motives for its use. Indeed, will it ever be used against most white, mostly Republican cities or towns that are in financial trouble? Will their public property be turned over to wealthy corporations and Republican Party big wigs? Doubt it.

    Posted by Joel W., 04/22/2011 10:28am (3 years ago)

  • After reading this, I would challenge you to do a bit more research on the situation so that readers get the full picture.

    First, the emergency financial manager in Benton Harbor was appointed by (D) Gov. Jennifer Granholm, not the current (R) Gov. Snyder.

    Second, it would be hard to say the state did not have cause. The city’s pension was underfunded by $4 million and its cash reserves whet from $1.7 million to $300,000 in just 3 years. On top of that, the city was spending $80,000 to $100,000 in overdraft fees annually. The city commission even had to ask the state’s treasury department for an advance so that they could make payroll.

    Lastly, the golf club at Harbor Shores is built and was approved several years ago by many of the Benton Harbor commissions that are currently rendered unfit to financially manage. (Side note: the beach that was deeded to the city is still there and free and open to the public)

    I will say that I do not think the latest amendment to the EFM law, that Gov. Snyder signed, was necessary. The power to dissolve an elected commission is a fundamental violation of the democratic process. However, it is important to note that in Benton Harbor the elected officials are still there and only temporarily rendered useless. Once the city’s finances are back on track the EFM will leave and they will have their jobs backs.

    Should the EFM law be simplified and to be more of a collaborative effort between elected officials, yes! But maybe these are the conversations that need to be had, and not the violent rhetoric coming out of Benton Harbor or articles like yours that misinform people.

    Posted by Sallie Crawford, 04/22/2011 3:07am (3 years ago)

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