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Defying Michigan Voters, Gov. Rick Snyder Takes Over Detroit

In November, Michiganders voted the state's undemocratic Emergency Financial Manager law out of existence. But that didn't keep Snyder and legislators from claiming control of Motor City.

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As of today, Detroit is under the control of a governor-appointed emergency financial manager. The Motor City is the largest district in the nation to have its voters and elected officials sidelined by this new experiment in "crisis management."

Michigan residents might be wondering how this EFM got appointed. Didn’t they roundly reject financial managers in a statewide referendum in November? Michigan residents  voted to repeal the EFM law by 53-47 percent after 200,000 people signed a petition to put the issue on the ballot. But this outburst of democracy didn't stop the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder from ramming through a new law to do the exact same thing during a lame-duck legislative session a month later.

Detroit's new EFM is Kevyn Orr, a prominent bankruptcy lawyer who worked on the massive Chrysler restructuring in 2009 with the Washington, D.C., law firm Jones Day. Orr has his work cut out for him if he wants to win over the community. Many Detroit residents are  vowing continued protests and resistance to the takeover, saying that taking away democratic governance is not the way to fix the serious financial challenges the city faces.

Undemocratic EFM Law Defeated at the Polls

After the EFM law was repealed in November, a new version of the law was passed and put on the governor's desk within 37 days.  The new bill included many of the same extensive powers that voters rejected at the polls. This time the lame-duck legislature added a $700,000 appropriation, making the law immune to another veto referendum. (The same lame-duck session rammed an  ALEC-inspired union-busting "right to work" bill through despite public outcry and massive protests.)

Technically, the new EFM law will not go into effect for another few days. An existing law from 1990  provided the legal justification for Orr's appointment, but the new, superseding law will greatly expand the powers the state's EFMs have.

Under the new law, EFMs replace the mayor and the City Council and can "exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission or other similar entity of the local government whether elected or appointed." EFMs can modify, reject, or terminate any contract at any time for any reason, including with public employee unions. They can sell public assets (other than utilities), take the city into bankruptcy with the approval of the governor, and can even  ban any individual who does not comply with orders from government buildings and communications.

EFM as a Civil Rights Issue

Today, six cities and 9 percent of Michigan residents are being governed by an appointed EFM and are no longer represented by the local officials they democratically elected. While only a portion of Michigan residents are being disenfranchised in this way, these EFM take-overs disproportionately affect Michigan's African-American communities.  A whopping 49 percent of Michigan's African-American residents are now under the rule of appointed EFMs, raising questions about the civil rights implications of the law.

Longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers, whose district includes Detroit, asked the  Washington Post: "How come all of the jurisdictions put under emergency management are majority African American? Has anybody noticed that? There seems to be a racial aspect, a racial component of the application of this law."

Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Detroit's Fellowship Chapel lamented: "It is the civil rights issue of our time. I didn't vote for an emergency manager. I voted for a mayor. I did not give up my right to vote on the whims and fancies of a law that we believe is unconstitutional and immoral. We view it as another step in the direction of voter suppression and vote oppression."

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