By Eric T. Campbell, Special to the NNPA from The Michigan Citizen –
DETROIT — As a ballot petition to repeal Public Act 4, the Emergency Manager law, circulates throughout the state, a broad coalition of labor and civil rights attorneys has already initiated legal action to defeat the bill in court.
Filed in Ingham County Circuit court June 22, the lawsuit states that Public Act 4 illegally establishes a new form of local government, violating the constitutional rights of Michigan residents.
Attorney William Goodman of the Detroit Lawyers Guild told a National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) forum, held July last week at Fellowship Chapel, that putting together a legal strategy against a law so unjust proved challenging.
“The courts are controlled by reactionary, right-wing train of thought,” Goodman said. “But we have drafted a lawsuit that is very strong and powerful.”
In addition to legal aspects, over 100 in attendance heard testimony on what happens when an emergency manager takes over an entire city, such as Pontiac.
Pontiac’s elected city officials have had their political power stripped completely since the state of Michigan appointed Emergency Manager Michael Stampfler to run the city of Pontiac March 19.
Pontiac City Council member Donald Watkins told the forum that the EM has been unresponsive to potential business investors, especially African American businesses.
“The emergency manager law is an elimination of the system of checks and balances — he does whatever he wants,” Watkins told forum attendees. “There’s no separation of powers — he’s the executive, the judicial and the legislative branch.”
Watkins told the Michigan Citizen that Stampfler has eliminated the entire department of public works, outsourced the water department and prevented council members from seeing the city budget until it was posted online.
Faced with a $12 million deficit, Stampfler disbanded the Pontiac police department late last year and turned over police patrols to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department.
“This is the way they destroyed reconstruction and instituted segregation,” said attorney George Washington, who has represented BAMN and the Detroit School Board in trying to curtail DPS Emergency Manager Robert Bobb’s illegal activities.
“If you look at what’s occurred as a result of what has happened to our children since emergency financial manager Bobb, you can see exactly what the agenda is — this is a law that is deliberately aimed at Blacks in Detroit.”
Gov. Rick Snyder signed Michigan Public Act 4 into law after it passed through the Republican-led legislature in March 2011.
The new law gives the governor the ability to appoint emergency managers to replace elected officials and run local municipalities and school districts. PA 4 allows emergency managers to lay off union workers, suspend collective bargaining agreements and sell off public assets among other powers. At the time, Congressman John Conyers issued a statement questioning the new law as a violation of civil rights since Black cities are disproportionately affected.
Current Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Roy Roberts is exercising powers under the act; he ignored the Board of Education and appointed his own person to the Library Board, an apparent non-financial action. He also announced this week a 10 percent pay cut for all union and non-union DPS employees.
In Benton Harbor, EM Joe Harris tried to reduce usage of the Lake Michigan beach and issued an order to city staff that they were not to attend any city commission meetings. He directed the commission to limit themselves to convening and adjourning meetings and reading the minutes.
“We want to go into court as soon as possible and say, on its face, this act is a violation of the law under the constitution,” said attorney Herb Sanders at the forum, which was moderated by Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson.
Local taxpayers pay the emergency managers’ salaries, raising the issue of taxation without representation. The fact that majority-Black communities have been targeted by the governor’s office was not lost on the NCBL symposium panelists.
“This was aimed at Africans, and it is Africans that have to resist,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Mark Fancher. “If they say we’re playing the race card, then I’m playing it every chance I get.”
The Sugar Law Center is the lead counsel in the PA 4 lawsuit, representing 28 Michigan plaintiffs. Sugar Law legal director John Philo told the Michigan Citizen that soon after PA 4 legislation was signed into law, councilmember Watson hosted grassroots discussions to initiate a legal and community challenge. Watson put the word out that potential plaintiffs were needed and the effort spread throughout the city.
“We really wanted a cross section of plaintiffs who were interested in challenging the law,” Philo told the Michigan Citizen. “We decided there were legal grounds for a suit, constitutionally and otherwise.
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