This piece was originally published in Flint Neighborhoods United’s Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission.
Municipal takeover policies, known in Michigan as the “emergency manager laws,” claim to eschew politics. These policies, which rest on the principle that local government is broken, suspend local democracy in an attempt to fix local fiscal problems. Fear of municipal bankruptcy, economic contagion, and credit downgrades are among the most common motivations for intervening in local municipal affairs. For Flint, the city’s budget deficit was the expressed reason for its takeover.
States have a fiduciary responsibility to guarantee that municipalities meet their obligation to provide services to the public. When faced with on-going fiscal problems, some proponents argue that strong state interventions are necessary “in the interest of efficiency”.
From an economic-stability perspective, municipal takeovers are considered to be the best alternative when compared to municipal bankruptcy or doing nothing. State interventions by emergency managers are designed to be temporary and quick, yet often the typical processes of deliberation (or checks and balances) be damned.
In a 2012 op-ed in the MLive, Governor Snyder defended Michigan’s municipal takeover policy. He wrote, “It’s not about takeovers or control. It’s about helping communities and schools get back on solid financial footing and adapt to changing circumstances and fiscal realities.” Addressing the concerns of public workers, the Governor stated, “It’s not about voiding contracts or circumventing collective bargaining, but about ensuring fair contracts and benefits while recognizing that the past status quo simply isn’t sustainable anymore.” And his answer to citizens deeply worried about the loss of their voting franchise, he offered this justification: “It’s not about voting rights. This updated measure was passed after a thorough legislative process and robust public discussion. Emergency Managers are accountable to me and the Legislature, all of whom are elected.”
Proponents of municipal takeover seek expediency, efficiency, and fiscal stability. Democracy, on the other hand, is messy and politics is complex. As a result of the hegemony of this “rational-fiscal perspective,” little attention is paid to the potential long-term socio-economic and political ramifications of these policies. For example, in Benton Harbor, Emergency Manager Joseph Harris seemed bewildered by criticisms that the law suspended local democracy. In a scathing review of Michigan’s emergency manager law in the New York Times, Jonathon Mahler wrote that Harris was “Blissfully free of the checks and balances of democratic government, he [Harris] is living the dream of every frustrated city administrator.” In the article, Harris was quoted as saying, “Here, I don’t have to worry about whether the politicians or union leaders like what I am doing, I have to worry about whether it’s the right thing to do. That’s the only thing that should matter. I love this job.”
My research found that despite politicians’ claims to the contrary, municipal takeovers are in fact political, and have significant political consequences at the local level. By taking an in-depth, policy-focused look at the municipal takeovers in Flint, I found that the state’s intervention not only suspended the authority of local elected officials in the short-term, but reshaped the local political landscape for the long term.
The implementation of the policy by a series of state-appointed managers interrupted politics-as-usual. While some argued that municipal takeovers are only temporary, implying that the political impact too is only temporary, the tools and strategies utilized by the emergency-managers are in fact political. To borrow from political scientist Harold Lasswell’s phraseology, municipal takeovers determine “who gets what, when, [and] how.”
In Flint, some groups benefited from the takeover, while others lost. Under a series of state-appointed managers, more than one hundred executive orders, resolutions and directives were implemented. These directives included, among other things, shuttering city offices, laying off employees, restructuring collective bargaining agreements, selling city assets and increasing fees. These decisions reshaped the local political landscape in numerous ways. First, it allocated local resource benefits to some while creating burdens for others. Second, it restructured local government, in some instances removing points of participatory access for city residents. Third, these polices and their implementation had a symbolic effect, conveying important messages to community stakeholders and residents about their value and position in the city. Together, these policies dictated just who participates in local politics in Flint and who benefits.
The crisis in Flint draws our attention to ongoing conflicts in how we respond to urban fiscal crises. Is fiscal stability to be pursued at the expense of social equity, process at the expense of expediency, budget line-items at the expense of citizens in a troubled city.
Flint is hardly alone. Local governments across the United States are caught between increasing costs and shrinking revenues, what Drier, Mollenkopf, Swanstrom refer to as the “iron cage of municipal finance.” From city to city, the causes of fiscal distress vary from loss of state revenues to rising costs for public services and underfunded public pensions, to outright fiscal mismanagement. Across the country, these difficulties are similar and often hit poor, minority communities the hardest, creating greater social inequality.
The impact of what happened in Flint has broader implications, as other states like New Jersey are poised to strengthen their municipal takeover policy, or adopting new emergency manager legislation like in Wisconsin. Members of the community continue to organize in opposition and file lawsuits, and residents express distrust and anger with local and state government.
When policies are put in place with a narrow focus on the fiscal bottom line, the potential social and political impact is often overlooked. The consequences of isolating local elected officials and community residents from public policy decisions that directly and indirectly affected them have long-term consequences.
Democracy is messy, yes; but decreasing resident access to local decision-makers, removing traditional forms of checks and balances, and cutting services, while raising costs serves to foster distrust among residents and provides openings for local elites to control or shape the agenda. Putting measures in place to ameliorate this problem would go a long way toward diminishing the lack of access to local power. In other words, deliberation and inclusion are essential to making laws aimed at addressing fiscal crises more socially equitable.
Correction: In the original piece I inaccurately indicated that Gov. Snyder’s op-ed was published in The Detroit Free Press. It was, however, published on MLive.