What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover, Pt. 1

Flint, Michigan (Flickr)

This piece was originally published in Flint Neighborhoods United’s Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission.

In the summer of 2015, months before the city of Flint made national, rather international, headlines for the water crisis, I began my fieldwork in Flint. I was there to conduct research on the state’s takeover of Flint, under the now infamous “PA 4”. I wanted to understand the political impact of the takeover.  At the time, I was a PhD candidate at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey studying public policy and administration with a focus on community development and urban politics.

During my time in Flint, I met (and interviewed) many Flint residents. I rented rooms and apartments in different Flint neighborhoods. I ate at local restaurants and shopped at the Flint Farmers market. By spending time in the city and attending community events, I began to build connections with members of the Flint community. When my interviews ended and my dissertation was complete, I did not cut ties. Instead, I made a personal and professional commitment to stay involved. I made a commitment to share what I learned with whomever will listen and advocate for policy change wherever I can. This is how I came to writing this article for Our Community, Our Voice. In fact, this is the first in a series of pieces about what I learned.

First, why Flint?

It is a question that I am asked often. First, let me start off by saying that I am originally from Michigan- Grand Rapids to be exact. I studied at Grand Valley State University (first focusing on psychology and gender studies and then public and nonprofit administration). While my roots were in Grand Rapids, I sat on state-wide boards and therefore became interested in state politics and policy.

The “why Flint?” question also has roots in my experiences in Camden, New Jersey. I moved to Camden with my family to study in 2011.

Although the cities are 640 miles apart and differ in very real and meaningful ways, the cities have one very important thing in common: both have experienced municipal takeovers. Both cities have seen their elected officials stripped of their powers, at least temporarily. Both cities have bared witness to the power of the local “community development regime”: high-capacity community-based nonprofits, philanthropic institutions, and anchor institutions (hospitals and universities). And, of particular import to me, both cities provide evidence that communities, when threatened, will organize against these powerful interests!

So, what is a Municipal Takeover?

Across the United States, states mandate different approaches to local fiscal crises. Some allow local governments to file for bankruptcy, taking a hands-off approach as in California. Nineteen states have some form of intervention laws. Some states, such as North Carolina, monitor local fiscal conditions and step in with monetary or technical assistance, if needed. Others may place the local government under the supervision of a state agency or state appointed fiscal oversight board, as happened in New York City, Philadelphia, and Cleveland for example.

Only eight states—including Michigan—have adopted municipal takeover policies that give a state-appointed manager broad authority. Depending on the state, these managers have sweeping powers to negotiate debt, supervise local finances, approve budgets, renegotiate contracts, restructure government, terminate employees, nullify collective bargaining agreements, consolidate government departments, or dissolve municipal charters. Local elected officials lose all or most of their authority.

From my experience, most people in Michigan refer to Michigan’s state intervention policy as the “Emergency Manager Laws.” Here, I use the term municipal takeover. There is no consensus as to what these policies should be called. The term municipal takeover is used to define the state-directed policy of declaring a municipality to be in a state of fiscal emergency and intervening by: 1. placing the municipality (local government) under state receivership; 2. handing over control of most or all local government decision-making to a state-appointed manager, effectively relieving local elected officials of their governing authority; and, 3. implementing a combination of tools to stabilize the local government’s fiscal condition.

As noted above, few states have laws that allow for municipal takeovers under this definition. They are intended to be a policy of last resort, used when both local government and the local economy are unstable and crisis-prone.  However, Michigan’s “Emergency Manager Law” and the use of municipal takeover is arguably to the most aggressive—and most used.

What next?

In the coming issues of Our Community, Our Voice I will continue to highlight what I have learned about municipal takeovers, the specifics of what I found in Flint, and policy recommendations. In the meantime, if you have questions for me, please contact me at anickel5@kent.edu.

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