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Michigan is one tough town

A couple of us on the show spent yesterday in Michigan, where we went to hear a talk by a former emergency manager about why the emergency manager law isn't working and can't work. Michael Stampfler spoke at the Wyandotte Rotary Club, south of Detroit. His message was that unless the state does something to build up a community's democracy, the town won’t be able to keep the books balanced after the emergency manager leaves. (Some local coverage here and here.)

Personally, I was struck by the number of elected mayors in the crowd who seemed to have an emergency manager looming in their rearview mirrors. As new mayor Kyle Stack of Trenton, Michigan, explained, the state tells the towns what to do in order to qualify for a share of the revenue that keeps them afloat. If they don’t do what the state says, then they lose that money and go broke, and an emergency manager takes them over. Not surprisingly, Mayor Stack prefers local democracy over a state-installed emergency manager.

I'd like to see that the towns try to work it out themselves. . . . We don't always tell the state of Michigan what they need to do, and I think that cities can have better jurisdiction over their own areas. They know what needs to be done and where we need to go with it. We're probably all going to be in line for them, though, the way it's going. Because I talked to a few of the mayors here, and we all have money issues.

It's just a fact of governing now in Michigan that the state might come in and take you over, and that fact reaches everywhere. We stopped in, very briefly, at the Catherine Ferguson Academy for young mothers. The Detroit high school was nearly closed last year by the Detroit schools' emergency manager. Below is the door the police hauled the students out through when they were arrested while protesting the planned closing.

This week, we found students staying late to work on academics, and others taking yoga, and dozens of them bundling up their babies and toddlers for the trip home.

It was hard to imagine a single emergency manager with unilateral control shuttering all of that, but that's how it can go in Michigan now.

Today the staff at the Michigan Board of State Canvassers reported (pdf) that a group trying to overturn the emergency manager law has enough signatures to get on the ballot. Tomorrow, the board will hear a challenge to the petition itself, primarily but not solely on grounds that the font size is too small. That's the story in which the group bringing the challenge is a project of the Republican consulting firm whose partner sits on the board that will hear the challenge. The board's staff report (pdf) recommends that the board reject the challenge because the group circulating the petition tried to comply substantially with the law, and the board hasn't got the authority to rule on the rest of it.

We'll see how the vote goes tomorrow. If the question makes the ballot, then the emergency manager law gets shelved for now, and towns like Benton Harbor might get to hold Constitution Week after all, and, maybe, the suing to stop the referendum begins.