The thing about living in Michigan and having an emergency financial manager take over your school district or your town is that the emergency manager really does have dictatorial power. If that person says your school is closing, then it’s closing, unless that person changes his or her mind.
In Benton Harbor, a mostly black and poor town with an emergency manager, folks are just waking up to an order the manager issued on May 4 that restricts access to the public waterfront park. Jean Klock Park was deeded to Benton Harbor in 1917 “in perpetuity.” Part of it has been turned into a luxury golf resort, with the help of an economic development group that until recently included the sponsor of the emergency manager law on its board of directors.
Under the new order, first reported by the Michigan Messenger, people will only be able to use the park between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. – no more early morning walks along the lake. What’s more, emergency manager Joseph Harris has decreed: “The annual season during which Jean Klock Park is open begins on each May 1 and ends on the following September 30, inclusive.” That would appear to mean that “in perpetuity” could stop in the fall and pick up again in the spring.
Friends of Jean Klock Park say it had been open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. year-round. Park advocate Clellen Bury has posted a letter to Mr. Harris suggesting that the park has been closed off because of preparation for upcoming athletic events, including a Senior PGA tournament next year. The new order violates both the deeding of the park and the city’s lease with the golf resort, the advocate writes. The message includes this: “As my tax dollars are being used to pay for your salary, I would appreciate a full and prompt response to the concerns and points I have raised in this letter.”
But Mr. Harris need answer to no one in Benton Harbor. He has stripped the local elected officials of all but their most ceremonial powers. Benton Harbor is now run by one state-appointed person. Over on Eclectablog, you can find a critique of the emergency manager law from a Tea Party perspective – I recommend reading it. UPDATE: We’ve got a call in to Mr. Harris, and he’s hosting a town hall tonight. If we find out more, we’ll post it.
(Image: The new lakefront golf course in Benton Harbor, and what’s left of the town’s park. Photo used by permission of Anne Savage Photography)