These days the elected commissioners of Benton Harbor, Michigan, aren’t allowed to do much. The state’s expanded emergency financial manager law gives the emergency manager – in Benton Harbor’s case, Joe Harris – nearly complete control over what happens in the city. The state has deemed that curbing democracy in towns like Benton Harbor is part of fixing towns like Benton Harbor.
- Call a meeting to order.
- Approve meeting minutes.
- Adjourn a meeting.
But the Benton Harbor commissioners have continued trying. This month, they voted unanimously to declare September 17-23 as Constitution Week in Benton Harbor, in honor of the signing of our nation’s founding document. You’ll notice that declaring anything is outside the duties Emergency Manager Harris has left to the commission. They’re simply not allowed to vote for a celebration of Constitution Week.
Now City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad forwards over a note from Benton Harbor’s Acting City Clerk telling commissioners that Mr. Harris wants to add this to the minutes from that meeting:
“THE FOLLOWING ACTION TAKEN OR DECISION MADE BY THE CITY COMMISSION WAS NOT AUTHORIZED BY THE EMERGENCY MANAGER AND IS NULL AND VOID, AND OF NO FORCE OR EFFECT.”
That means no Constitution Week, at least not as declared by the elected officials of Benton Harbor. The commission may lose this local skirmish. Under the expanded Public Act 4, the emergency manager has the power to authority the commission at will. But in the wider view, the commission is forcing him either to bend a little or to exercise his power in a way that shows how absolute it is.