If you want to know what’s going on in Benton Harbor, Michigan, just stop by the city website for a list of the latest orders from Emergency Financial Manager Joe Harris. The newest one (pdf) – at the bottom – calls for shrinking the city commission from nine members to five, and electing all of them at-large. The city commission, not surprisingly, objects.
Michigan’s revamped emergency manager law allows Mr. Harris to do just about whatever he pleases. The state has deemed Benton Harbor in need of serious help, such serious help that democracy itself is part of the problem. Democracy is seen as part of the problem, until it isn’t. Mr. Harris has placed the charter changes he wants on the November ballot. This is one that the people of Benton Harbor will get to vote on.
A leading voice for repealing the law, Eclectablog says that what Joe Harris wants is smart, but that’s not enough:
This may come as a complete surprise to many of you, but I am totally in agreement with what he is proposing. First of all, he’s putting the two changes on the ballot for the citizens of Benton Harbor to vote on, not just implementing it outright. Second, the structure of the Benton Harbor City Commission is in need of change. A town of just over 11,000 people doesn’t need wards, particularly when some ward officials are getting elected with less than 100 votes. Also, nine city commissioners is too many. It’s a recipe for getting nothing accomplished.
But I’ll tell you this: it should not be possible for him to be able to do this. Normally it takes the gathering of petition signatures to put something on a ballot. You can’t just put things up for a vote by declaring it so. However, Emergency Managers are truly “czars”. They can do what they want with nearly no limitations and that is why the repeal of Public Act 4 is so critical.
If you’re working for political change, just getting on the ballot is a major hurdle. Folks like Eclectablog have been toiling for months now to get to get a repeal referendum up for a vote, but Emergency Manager Harris types up an order and he’s in.