What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover: Pt. III

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover: Final Thoughts

(this blog post was originally published in Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission).

I have been warned by numerous scholars, and practitioners alike, to keep an open mind about the use of municipal takeovers. These policies are not designed, they have argued, with malicious intent. Instead, they offer, these policies are intended to help fiscally distressed municipalities deal with the reality that they are facing municipal bankruptcy or dissolution.

In other words, would I rather see these cities go bankrupt? Would it be better that the state did nothing and watched the city grow poorer and poorer? No!

That does not, however, mean that municipal takeover policies should go unquestioned. The impact of these policies are real—and deserve scrutiny. While I argue that the burdens placed on residents through the implementation of municipal takeover policies outweigh the benefits of fiscal stability, the crux of my research centers on the political impact of municipal takeovers: How local government—and governance—was restructured, how communities responded, and why?

As noted in my previous article, my research examines who had access to decision making and who was left out under emergency management. I look at how the policy allocated both benefits and burdens and how people interpreted policy directives. Ultimately, my research offers an explanation for why Flint residents did not “back down” or “shut up,” when the state intervened to ostensibly fix Flint’s finances and instead sought alternative ways of engaging in local politics. I find that the differential allocation of benefits and burdens was interpreted by many as rewarding the “powerful,” while further marginalizing residents who are disproportionately poor and people of color.

I argue that policies aimed at addressing municipal fiscal emergencies can be improved by placing greater emphasis on social equity. In the words of public administration scholar H. G. Frederickson, it is not just about “whether an existing public program or proposed program is effective or good. The second question is more important. For whom is the program effective or good?”

Let’s start by examining the tools—or policy instruments—available to local governments. These tools affect both the content and the process of policy implementation. In the context of municipal takeover, the policy tools, such as the ability to cut services, increase fees, eliminate or renegotiate contracts, or appoint an emergency manager shape how, by whom, and what decisions are made. In Michigan, municipal takeover policy emphasizes efficiency over equity, budgets over democracy. This is not to say that the people carrying out the policy are inherently bad. Instead, the policy, by design, incentivizes that draconian cuts to services, which come at an increased cost, be carried out by top-down directives, absent democratic deliberation.

To address this:  first, eliminate the use of state-appointed managers. Giving sole authority to an unelected, state-appointed manager has two important consequences. First, it isolates the manager from the community and frees them from traditional modes of accountability. As Jessica Trounstine notes, “…When rulers are not accountable to their subjects, they have an easier time making decisions that defy the preferences and even best interests of those people.” Additionally, cuts to services and increased fees were implemented by an un-elected state-appointed official under the auspices of fiscal austerity, undermining our strongly held beliefs regarding democracy, popular sovereignty, and local control. Thus, using state-appointed emergency managers as a policy tool fosters resentment, anger, and distrust among members of the community.

While municipal takeover policies are ostensibly designed to address fiscal crises, these crises are not simply fiscal in nature. As Thomas Sugrue has pointed out, urban crises are rooted in policies of racial discrimination and economic disinvestment. You cannot resolve these structural problems by cutting services and increasing fees to an already marginalized population.

Moreover, policies should be designed to foster democracy, not undermine it. Even if our focus remains on budgets, community representatives should have an active role in addressing the fiscal concerns of the city. There are existing models—adopted in other cities, including post-bankruptcy Vallejo, CA— that are founded on the principle of what Archon Fung calls “empowered participation”; programs such as participatory budgeting, which give citizens the power to identify community needs and allocate government funds accordingly. Such programs, though in their infancy in the United States, provide a model for fiscal decision making that seeks to increase trust in local government and foster, what Hollie Russon Gilman identifies as, a “renewed political culture in which citizens… serve as democratic agents.” While it can be challenging to fully incorporate all voices during a fiscal crisis, such programs provide evidence that there are ways in which local budgeting could be improved.

As Deborah Stone once wrote, “we may never see eye to eye, yet there is a huge difference between a political process in which people honestly try to see the world from different vantage points, and one in which they claim from the start their vantage point is the right one.” Municipal takeover policy preferences the latter.

Democracy is messy, but short-sighted municipal takeover policies have long-term political consequences.  Reducing democratic access creates opportunities for unrepresentative local elites to influence the takeover agenda for their own purposes, undermining possibilities for effective governance. Fiscal crises must be addressed, but community members should have an active role in understanding the problems and devising solutions. Democratic deliberation and inclusion are essential to enable troubled cities, with state support, to find ways to address fiscal crises in socially equitable and sustainable ways.

I want to thank Flint Neighborhoods United for inviting me to write this series of articles for Our Community, Our Voice. It is an honor to share some of my thoughts with you through this newsletter. If you have questions, comments, or concerns regarding my research, I encourage you to contact me at anickel5@kent.edu or reach me through my website: www.aenickels.com.

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