Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

AG to Ask Judge to Dismiss Challenge to Michigan's Emergency Manager Law
Walter Knall of Stop the Theft of Our Pensions speaks outside bankruptcy court
in downtown Detroit.
Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit— The state Attorney General’s Office today will urge a federal judge to dismiss a legal challenge that seeks to strike down Michigan’s emergency manager law on claims it dilutes the right to vote.

The lawsuit, representing nearly two dozen plaintiffs, was filed last year as Public Act 436 went into effect and gave state-appointed emergency managers the power to amend budgets, change contracts and consolidate or eliminate departments.

Attorneys behind the suit say the law violates federal collective bargaining rights, due process and voting rights, and is unequally applied in minority communities. But the state contends the plaintiffs fail to demonstrate any harm to voting rights.

If the lawsuit succeeds, attorneys behind the suit say emergency managers could be bounced in favor of restoring control to elected leaders. In Detroit, however, a decision on the city’s bankruptcy filing and its leadership would likely be made by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes.

The state law went into effect in March 2013 after voters repealed a prior law called Public Act 4 that granted emergency managers many of the same powers. Public Act 4 replaced the original, less powerful 1990 law that gave state-appointed managers no power to change contracts.

“It’s a significant case, no matter what happens,” said Eric Scorsone, a Michigan State University emergency manager expert who has worked for city of Detroit contractors. “... It’s clear that the changes in the law — especially contract powers — triggered people.”

In its motion, the state notes with more communities and school districts “teetering on the brink of financial catastrophe,” additional flexibility and tools were justified.

Emergency managers are running Allen Park, Detroit, Flint and Hamtramck and school districts in Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights. State oversight remains in Ecorse, Inkster, Benton Harbor, River Rouge and Pontiac.

Since the new law took effect, communities or school districts in financial emergencies can choose an emergency manager, negotiate a consent agreement with the state, seek mediation or file for bankruptcy. The Pontiac school district and Royal Oak Township have signed consent agreements, while Lincoln Park has voted to negotiate such a pact with the state. Hamtramck wanted an emergency manager.

The lawsuit, the state contends, “contains no ... alternative solutions to the financial problems that have plagued many communities.”

Attorney General Bill Schuette also argues the suit did not identify specific instances showing constitutional violations and all plaintiffs lack the standing to sue.

But LaMar Lemmons, president of Detroit Public Schools that has operated under emergency management for more than five years, called the assertion “ridiculous.”

“As a citizen, taxpayer, a father and grandfather ... I have standing up the wazoo,” Lemmons said.

“Children, families and citizens are all harmed by this process,” he added, noting the school district is on its third EM while population and neighborhoods and test scores have declined.

Lou Schimmel, who has been an emergency manager in Hamtramck and Pontiac, argues the existing law is valid.

Schimmel said the act was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, all elected by the people. Communities get the authority to operate from the state, he said.

“The State of Michigan has every right to say that its municipalities have to act fiscally responsible. They have the right to step in ... if somebody starts falling off the track,” he said.

Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University, said while he agrees the law disproportionately involves cities with predominately African-American populations, a judge will probably rule the law does not impose an undue burden on the right to vote.

“It’s not a situation where the voters can’t vote. Rather, it’s a question of whether the weight of their vote is reduced because of the emergency manager with the powers that the emergency manager has,” Sedler said, adding such cases are hard to win.
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From The Detroit News:

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