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Emergency Manager Oversight in Michigan Is Being Challenged Once Again

— December 19, 2017

Emergency Manager Oversight in Michigan Is Being Challenged Once Again

Several local officials and residents from Michigan’s communities who had once been overseen by state-appointed emergency managers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan this month claiming the state’s emergency manager law is unconstitutional.  The groups specifically alleged that the law targets African American communities and represents a “narrative of structural and strategic racism.”  They further challenged it by contending it strips black residents of their “governing power while not applying the law to similarly situated majority white municipalities and school districts suffering equal or greater financial distress.”

Attorney Herb Sanders said the law violates the U.S. constitution’s equal protection clause, and that research has shown more than 50 percent of the state’s African American residents have at one time or another lived in a community where elected officials have been overridden by emergency managers.  “Public Act 436, as written, and in its application, is racially discriminatory,” he said.

Emergency Manager Oversight in Michigan Is Being Challenged Once Again
Image Courtesy of Reuters/Rebecca Cook

Detroit Public Schools, the city of Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Flint, Detroit and Muskegon Heights Public Schools have all been released from oversight in recent years, and only the Highland Park school district is still operating under the direction of an emergency manager, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury.  Therefore, there has been a significant reduction in the use of emergency managers in the state, although this oversight is still an option.

The responsibilities of these managers were extended in 2010 after Snyder was elected.  While voters were initially able to repeal the expansion of power, less than two months later, Snyder had signed replacement legislation offering either a consent agreement, chapter 9 bankruptcy, mediation, or an emergency manager as options for struggling communities and schools, which he considered a great improvement to the old system.

Sanders, along with several of the plaintiffs in the current suit, had been part of a similar legal battle in 2013, which was unsuccessful.  They had challenged the law based on the Voting Rights Act at that time.  Now they’ve challenged the law in relation to the Constitution’s equal protection clause.  Named defendants in the lawsuit are R. Kevin Clinton and Any Dillon.  Plaintiffs include Russ Bellant of the Detroit Library Commission; Lamar Lemmons, a member of the Detroit Public Schools Community District Board of Education; Mary Alice Adams, of the Benton Harbor City Commission; and Flint City Council member Scott Kincaid.

Challenges to the law have been historically met with resistance and disregard.  Last year, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law doesn’t violate the constitution. Then, in October 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.  After being let down, Sanders said, “I’m extremely disappointed.  I think it’s a very important issue that has national implications.”

It looks like the group has an uphill battle ahead.  However, this isn’t stopping Sanders and the others from pursuing the new lawsuit and challenging the use of emergency managers once again.

“The law is still on the books,” Sanders said. “We could see emergency managers implemented at any time at the discretion of the powers that be.”


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