Press conferences were held on June 22, 2011 at the city hall steps in over two dozen cities across the state of Michigan including Lansing, Benton Harbor, Grand Rapids, Flint, Detroit, and Pontiac to announce that a civil suit has been filed against the State of Michigan and the Emergency Financial Manager Law Public Act 4. The announcement was a coordinated effort across the state by the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice on behalf of 28 Michigan citizens who have filed suit against the State. As eclectablog wrote in his Dailykos.com diary this morning, the suit names the defendants as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) and State Treasurer Andy Dillon.
As Chris Savage (aka eclectablog) reported in his in depth coverage for A2politico.com, the Sugar Law Center in conjunction with the Center For Constitutional Rights, filed a lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court challenging the constitutionality of PA 4.
From their press release, the Sugar Law Center said yesterday:
Citizens from across Michigan today announced they are taking Michigan's controversial emergency manager law to court, filing a lawsuit that charges Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature with implementing an unconstitutional power grab that effectively silences citizens.
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In March 2011, the legislature approved and Gov. Rick Snyder signed Michigan Public Act 4 (PA4), a new law that gives the Governor's office the power to appoint so-called "emergency managers" for any of a broad, vague set of criteria. These emergency managers can then take over the entire operations of local communities or school districts, replacing elected officials. Emergency managers have nearly unlimited, unilateral and unchecked authority, from making and changing laws to selling off public assets and saddling local taxpayers with debt without their approval to laying off workers and repealing collective bargaining contracts. Local taxpayers must pay for these emergency managers, ranging from $11,000 a month for the manager in Benton Harbor to around $33,000 a month for the manager of the Detroit Public Schools.
The citizens' lawsuit, filed against the State of Michigan in Ingham County Circuit Court, says the emergency manager law violates the Michigan Constitution by:
*Suspending home rule, by giving managers power to repeal local laws, ordinances, charters and contracts
*Effectively eliminating citizens' rights to vote for and petition local government on matters of local concern
*Violating the separation of powers, by allowing the executive branch and its agencies to exercise legislative duties
*Allowing the legislature to enact unfunded mandates, by using local taxpayer dollars for such purposes as managers' salaries and staff
The Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice is serving as the lead counsel for the 28 citizens. Sugar Law is joined by attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights, The Sanders Law Firm, Miller Cohen PLC, and Goodman & Hurwitz PC on behalf of the Michigan National Lawyers Guild.
"This unfair, unconstitutional and unnecessary law takes away the rights of hardworking people who play by the rules," said John Philo, Legal Director for the Sugar Law Center. "PA-4 establishes a new form of local government, unknown anywhere in the United States, where the people in local municipalities are governed by an unelected official who establishes local law by decree. It's a backdoor way to end collective bargaining and effectively silence local firefighters, police, teachers, nurses and anyone who serves the public and provides essential local services."
At the late afternoon press conference in Pontiac, MI today I spoke with Attorney Julie Hurwitz (of Goodman & Hurwitz PC), who is acting as representation in the suit.
Julie Hurwitz (pictured above) told me that all legal representation for the civil suit against the State of Michigan is voluntary. Ms. Hurwitz said that the goal of the suit is to get a judicial declaration of the law as unconstitutional. She said that the suit will likely make it to the Michigan Supreme Court, but that right now the focus is at the Circuit Court level. In Ingham County the suit has been assigned to Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina. The suit is currently in the "discovery" phase, then Judge Aquilina will establish a 'Status Conference'.
Attorney Hurwitz addressed the group, telling citizens attending the press conference that the EFM law is "a power grab to disenfranchise voters". She said that this is an attack on working people across the state, and that every single Michigan community in financial stress is now at risk to be subject to these measures. Hurwitz told the group that PA 4 violates the constitutional requirement that the state pay for staff, the salaries for the appointed EFM and their teams, hired firms, and expenses (these expenses are being paid for by taxpayers); the law violates the prohibition enacted in 1978 against unfunded mandates; an EFM has more power than the state legislature and establishes a new form of government that is governed by unelected officials–"in essence establishing a dictatorship". "Twenty-eight citizens stepped up", Julie Hurwitz said. "The number one concern is the health of constitutional and democratic rights". She said they are "ready to fight against a power grab."
I spoke with Tameka Ramsey, a plaintiff in the case from the city of Pontiac.
This courageous young woman lives and works in the city of Pontiac and is filing suit against Gov. Rick Snyder and the state because she believes "we have the right to vote for elected officials and not have someone appoint them for us" without our consent. Ms. Ramsey first became aware of the legislation as it was still being deliberated in Lansing while she was going to graduate school for Urban Planning. She had written her first grad school paper on former Pontiac EFM Fred Leeb (who was replaced with EFM Michael Stampfler in July 2010). Tameka said that she does not want to have the rights that her ancestors died for –the right to vote– to be taken away, and is going to do everything in her power "to preserve those rights" for her children.
Another Pontiac plaintiff in the suit, Pat O'Conner, addressed the group and told why he became involved.
Mr. O'Conner (pictured above) has lived in the Washington Park area of Pontiac for eleven years and is an active community volunteer. When he and his neighbors heard there was a proposed concrete crushing plant to be built on city land they went before the Planning Commission and expressed their concerns over relentless noise and unhealthy concrete dust that would come into their neighborhood from the plant. The commission heard their concern and prevented the project. The Pontiac Planning Commission has since been fired by EFM Michael Stampfler. O'Conner says the land borders a Rails to Trails that O'Conner helped to get a $90K grant to build and that others have obtained funds for to connect the Pontiac Rails to Trails to other communities. But now, O'Conner says, thanks to the EFM (Stampfler), there's a junkyard being proposed on city land which lies beside the Clinton River and the marsh that expands into Crystal Lake. 33 acres of woods and wetlands that lie beside the Rails to Trails are at risk, when they could be used by the community for much greater purposes such as science education and public recreation. Mr. O'Conner said, "But the EFM can plunk down a junkyard that would be an eyesore and a source of pollution for the sole purpose of making a few bucks to pay off debt." He went on to say that Michael Stampfler is "not accountable to the citizens of Pontiac or to their children."
Pontiac City Councilman Lee Jones talked about the challenges the City Council now faces. The democratically elected council has been "hamstringed" by Stampfler in the same way the council of Benton Harbor was "fired" by EFM Joe Harris. The residents of Pontiac elected their representative officials, who under EFM order can no longer have a voice in decisions and are no longer given information, funding, office supplies, or included in any part of the process, rendering them powerless for their constituents.
I spoke with City Councilman Kermit Williams today who told me that EFM Stampfler is paid $150K per year ($12,500 per month) from taxpayer money and that his assistant is paid $135K per year. Prior to the appointment of the first Pontiac EFM Fred Leeb, the city's mayor was paid $50K per year and the council members were paid $15K per year. Leeb reduced the council's pay to $5000 per year, and Stampfler brought the council and mayoral salaries to zero.
Councilman Williams (above) says that the first order given by the Emergency Manager was to cut off Pontiac City Council meetings. The council can only call a meeting to order, record minutes of a meeting, and adjourn a meeting–they hold no other powers now under EFM control. The EFM budgeted the sale of the Pontiac Silverdome for $7 million but sold it for only $583,000 (the "Dome" cost more than $5.5 million in taxpayer money to build in the 1970's). Williams says the EFM has laid off over 200 city employees, attempted to give back $14 million in stimulus funding for neighborhood stabilization, and outsourced the police department, IT department, Building and Safety Department, and Income Tax Division. Stampfler was the first EFM to abrogate a union contract when he dissolved the police dispatchers agreement, and as Chris Savage reported, he outsourced the city's water treatment facility to a company called United Water that is under indictment by the Department of Justice for violations of the Clean Water Act. Ed Schultz covered the story on MSNBC here.
Councilman Kermit Williams also said that the Pontiac Emergency Financial Manager has spent over $1 million in legal fees at taxpayer expense, and refused to present the 2011-2012 budget to the citizens of Pontiac. In most recent news out of Pontiac, the EFM has been discussing bankruptcy and asked Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to allow Pontiac to be merged into Oakland County, which would be allowed under EFM power with the ability to disincorporate municipalities (but only at Snyder and Dillon's discretion)–all of which was done without discussing the request with Gov. Snyder or Andy Dillon, according to Williams. To learn more, go to Kermitwilliams.com.
Announcements of this major development of the civil lawsuit took place in cities all over the state of Michigan today. Pontiac has been quietly suffering under these measures for years amd we are only now beginning to hear about the tragic violation of democratic rights in the historic city, and the greed driven privatization and dictator style governance that threatens every community and school district in the state. The courageous people who have decided to stand up for the rights of Michigan's citizens are to be applauded, and the pro-bono legal support and representation from the Sugar Law Center and others is an affirmation that perhaps democracy and decency still rule here, despite appearances to the contrary in Lansing. If you would like to get involved, please go to Michigan Forward to volunteer to get petition signatures to repeal PA 4, or to make a donation to the effort. The repeal effort will continue in conjunction with this civil law suit and Michigan's people will prevail.
(author's note: this story is cross posted at Dailykos.com)