Three Ways Emergency Financial Managers are Endangering Democracy

October 02, 2012

Let’s face it: the emotions on both sides of the emergency manager law controversy have been extreme.

Public Act 4 of 2011 allows the Governor to appoint individuals who can suspend the authority of mayors and city councils and administer and legislate in their place.

On the one hand, some supporters of this law warn of economic catastrophe of epic proportions if emergency managers are not allowed to save the day.

On the other hand, some opponents of the law contend that the powers of emergency managers are so broad that a more appropriate name for Public Act 4 is “The Emergency Dictator Law.”

After a notorious, hard-fought court battle, Michigan’s voters will, in November, have a chance to decide with their ballots whether Public Act 4 is retained or scrapped.

At the ACLU of Michigan, we don’t claim to be experts in economics or municipal budget issues. Whether emergency managers can effectively rescue failing economies is not a debate that we enter.

We are however charged with protecting the civil rights of Michigan’s people, and it appeared to us that certain rights to representative democracy have been affected by the emergency manager law. We were also concerned about repeated accusations of racial bias in the law’s implementation.

To learn more, we hit the streets to speak directly with elected officials, public employees, community activists, everyday citizens and even emergency managers themselves.

The product of those conversations and related research is a full report titled: “Unelected & Unaccountable: Emergency Managers and Public Act 4’s Threat to Representative Democracy.”

So what are our conclusions after talking with folks? Emergency managers are a threat to representative democracy for the simple reason that they are not elected but nevertheless possess governmental authority intended for persons who were elected.

  1. They aren't required to listen to citizens. Some citizens believe that unlike elected officials, emergency managers have been inaccessible in ways that frustrate the First Amendment’s guarantee of citizens’ rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances. 
     
  2. They cannot be voted out of office. Since emergency managers are appointed and not elected, they are seen by some as unaccountable for their exercise of authority intended for elected officials. 
     
  3. They may not be representative of their community. Whether by design or coincidence, there is a distinct racial pattern to the appointment of emergency managers. In practice, many have come to believe that emergency management has been reserved for communities of color.

Read the entire report and find out what people had to say. Information enhances the effectiveness of representative democracy, and the more information November voters have about Public Act 4 the better.

Key News and Documents

News I ACLU Seeks Records About Emergency Financial Manager Law
Documents I Unelected & Unaccountable: Emergency Managers and Public Act 4’s Threat to Representative Democracy

By Mark Fancher, Staff Attorney

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