Afghanistan, Michigan Laws Show
Time for a Democracy of Our Own Making
Workers and immigrants across the country are facing brutal government-organized attacks on their living and working conditions and rights to organize. State budgets are being used to demand even more cuts and concessions, in a situation where years of experience makes clear that Concessions Are Not Solutions! The current budget debates at the federal level also indicate that yet more attacks on the rights of the people, especially women, children and those impoverished, are in the works despite broad and repeated opposition by the people all across the country. The same can be said concerning the refusal by Obama and Congress to end all U.S. wars and bring All U.S. Troops Home Now, demands widely supported by the majority. People are taking the stand to defend the rights of all and demanding that governments do the same. It is this pro-social stand that is under attack, as governments instead act to protect and expand the narrow interests of the Wall Street financiers.
Laws passed recently in Michigan to install appointed “financial managers” indicate that far from increasing the role of the people as necessary for modern democracy, governments are instead eliminating elected governance and the public meetings of such elected bodies. In the name of “financial emergencies,” the people are being called on to accept governments that have no social responsibility to provide basic rights such as those to education, healthcare, housing and other social services. Instead, the aim of government is to be “financial management” dedicated to the right of the monopolies to secure more and more of the public treasury.
The working class and people definitely want their public funds well managed and their local governments to be “effective and efficient.” They want a public school system that provides the highest quality education and enlightenment for all. There is no question that this is not currently the case and both reform and fundamental change is required. At issue with these laws and budget debates is who decides? Who decides if the aim of government is to guarantee the rights of the people first and foremost, orif it is to guarantee monopoly right? Who decides if government is to be accountable to the public good and society as a whole?
Modern democracy requires that the people themselves govern and decide. The Michigan laws are designed to block such a role for the people by putting in place arrangements where a Governor and his appointed “manager” — with sweeping powers and no public accountability — decide.
Already, one of these managers has decreed that elected officials he removed and city workers cannot attend public meetings of the city commission! There is to be no role for the public, not even the minimum that exists now of electing representatives and speaking out at public meetings. It is a conception of governance that says meeting the rights of the people is not “responsible,” while “prudent fiscal management,” as the law puts it, “does not allow any termination or diminishment of obligations to pay debt service.”
The working class produces the wealth. Already the monopolies rob great portions of this wealth at the point of production. Now the crisis of the monopolies to secure the most profits is such that they also want to lay claim to all the public funds. Elected governance is to be eliminated as an obstacle to the wholesale raiding of the public treasury by the financiers. The public is to accept that they are not capable of governance and making the “tough decisions” which serve to protect and extend monopoly right over the public good and public right.
These arrangements are currently being put in place at the state level. They are being used to eliminate elected governance, to eliminate the concept that government has social responsibilities and that government is accountable to the public and providing for the public good. It is thoroughly undemocratic and anti-social.
President Obama recently made clear that the Michigan “managers” are to be considered “models” for the nation. At a recent press conference organized by Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder concerning implementation of the “Emergency Managers” law for public schools, Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “Detroit has the potential to be a model not just for the state, but for the entire country.”
The Michigan model is an anti-worker, anti-social model. It represents a serious attack on democracy and on the growing drive of the people to play their rightful role in governance as decision-makers. The fact that it is being put forward as a model for the nation makes the necessity to not only oppose it but to fight for a democracy of our own making all the urgent.
Political empowerment of the people themselves is needed. Governance that puts defending the rights at home and abroad is the way forward. For the U.S. this means fighting for an anti-war, pro-social government of our own making. It is not a matter of pressuring those in power. It is a matter of advancing our right to be in power, to be the decision makers.
Emergency Manager Decrees City Officials and Workers Cannot Attend Public Meetings Without His Permission
Benton Harbor’s appointed “Emergency Financial Manager” has decreed that city officials and city workers cannot attend public meetings of the Benton Harbor City Commission without his permission. He also decreed that all minutes of city commission meetings must include language stating that any resolution passed by the body has no legal effect. The “manager,” Joe Harris, was appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in 2010. Up until now, he worked with local governance. His year in office has solved no social problem facing the people. Michigan Public Act 4, passed in March, gave Harris far greater powers. In April, under the new law, Harris dissolved the elected city commission and suspended decision-making powers of city officials, including the Mayor. The Mayor and City Commission together make up local governance for Benton Harbor. Now on June 6, he has determined that city officials and city workers cannot attend public meetings!
The Benton Harbor City Commission has continued to pass resolutions in defiance of Harris’s order eliminating their decision-making authority. This included a resolution calling for Harris’ removal and declaring that the Michigan law that granted the sweeping powers to an “emergency manager” was unconstitutional. Protests have repeatedly taken place in Benton Harbor opposing Harris and demanding that the public have a say in governance. These included actions in March, April and May. Another demonstration June 18 demanded that the law be repealed. Across Michigan workers have also demonstrated to reject the law and demand that their rights be upheld.
Harris’ actions show that the law is designed to eliminate elected governance and make decree by executive authorities acceptable. These latest actions by Harris indicate that the appointed “emergency managers” will not limit themselves to issuing decrees to elected officials. They will also deny city officials and public workers their rights to free speech and association. The law authorizes these attacks and makes protest and a public expression of a view opposing such executive rule “illegal.” It is part and parcel of a general trend nationwide limiting and even eliminating the role of the public in governance as the broad anti-social offensive of the monopolies intensifies.
Under the Michigan law passed in March, the Governor can appoint “managers” who have complete authority to eliminate elected government at the local level, including governance of cities, counties and school districts. The appointed “manager” can also eliminate contracts with public workers and teachers of the given location, seize and sell public assets, including parks, schools, libraries and water rights, eliminate social services, etc. They are also required, by law, to guarantee debt service payments, while there are no such guarantees for public social services. The “manager” is not in any way accountable to the people and serves at the pleasure of the governor. As Harris’ decree about even attending public meetings brings out, the “managers” are acting to block any role for the public, such as speaking at public meetings and electing public officials.
These “emergency managers” also currently exist in Pontiac, Ecorse and for Detroit’s public schools. In Detroit, the “manager” has issued lay off notices for all teachers, using the blackmail of wholesale firing to try to impose massive cuts. All teachers are also going to be required to reapply for their jobs, meaning the manager will dictate who does and does not get rehired. In Pontiac the “manager” is calling for eliminating the contract for police dispatchers. Overall, an estimated 150 cities, towns, counties and school districts in Michigan have been branded “financially distressed,” and could be declared to have a “financial emergency,” and thus be subject to appointment of a “financial manager.”
Law Serves to Eliminate Elected Government and Makes Aim of Governance “Financial Management” for the Monopolies
In March, the Michigan State legislature passed a law known as the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act, also referred to as Public Act No.4. The Act puts in place mechanisms for the Governor to appoint an “Emergency Financial Manager” for any unit of local governance, including towns, city and county government as well as school districts. The appointed “manager” is given broad powers to dismiss elected local governance; take control of budgets and issuance of bonds; approve or eliminate existing contracts and negotiate, or not, all future contracts; hire, fire and layoff city workers; sell public assets like school buildings, libraries and water rights, guarantee debt payments and more. As the title indicates, Public Act 4 is a law that makes “fiscal management” for the monopolies the central aim of governance while also eliminating the role of elected governance and that of the public in general.
Alongside all the specific powers handed over to the appointed manager, the law also includes the broad phrasing that the -“manager” has the authority to “Take any other action or exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission, or other similar entity of the local government, whether elected or appointed, relating to the operation of the local government. The power of the emergency manager shall be superior to and supersede the power of any of the foregoing officers or entities.” Thus broad impunity to take “any action” is authorized. The power to “exercise any power or authority,” also means such “managers” have police powers, to utilize as they decide. This includes not only dictating the size and conditions of police and sheriff departments, but more importantly, calling them into action against the people.
The law is being justified with the claim that many local governments in Michigan face “financial emergencies” and that such “emergencies” require outside appointed “managers.” And while it is said there is a “valid public purpose” for the law, its measures to eliminate elected governance and public approval of actions of the appointed “manager” indicate that “public purpose” no longer refers to the public and its interests. Indeed the conception of government accountability to provide for the rights of the people of the localities involved and the public good in general is eliminated. Instead, the Governor and his appointed “manager” are responsible for guaranteeing that public funds serve monopoly interests. The stated purpose of the law brings out this content attacking public right while defending monopoly right:
“The legislature hereby determines that the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this state would be materially and adversely affected by the insolvency of local governments and that the fiscal accountability of local governments is vitally necessary to the interests of the citizens of this state to assure the provision of necessary governmental services essential to public health, safety, and welfare. The legislature further determines that it is vitally necessary to protect the credit of this state and its political subdivisions and that it is necessary for the public good and it is a valid public purpose for this state to take action and to assist a local government in a condition of financial stress or financial emergency so as to remedy the stress or emergency by requiring prudent fiscal management and efficient provision of services, permitting the restructuring of contractual obligations, and prescribing the powers and duties of state and local government officials and emergency managers. The legislature, therefore, determines that the authority and powers conferred by this act constitute a necessary program and serve a valid public purpose.”
The content of the law further makes clear that “protecting the credit of the state,” and “efficient provision of services, permitting the restructuring of contractual obligations,” has nothing to do with providing the most basic rights to jobs, education, healthcare, housing and food. Rather, the rights of the workers and students are under attack. This includes decreeing that city officials and workers cannot attend public meetings without the permission of the manager in Benton Harbor and plans for the wholesale firing of all Detroit teachers. The concept that government provision of rights is what is central to the “public good” is being replaced with the notion that “fiscal management” suitable to Wall Street financiers is the only necessary and “valid public purpose.”
Powers of “Emergency Managers”
The powers given to the “financial managers” are the clearest indication of the character of this law as an attack on the public, including attacking the aim of governance and the role of elected representatives. Sections 17-24 of the law deal with these powers.
Section 17 emphasizes that the “manager” issues orders to local government and that these orders are binding. It is up to the “manager,” not elected government, to determine what is “necessary to accomplish the purposes of this act, including but not limited to, orders for the timely and satisfactory implementation of a financial and operating plan.” The “manager” devises the plan. For school districts this includes developing “an academic and educational plan.” Thus a “manager” — who need not be a local resident and whose only qualifications are a “minimum of 5 years’ experience and demonstrable expertise in business, financial or local or state budgetary matters” — has power to decide the “academic and educational plan,” for the given school district. The “manager” can also take action or refrain from taking action “to enable the orderly accomplishment of the financial and operating plan.”
Section 18 outlines the content of the required “financial” plan. It states that the financial plan “shall have the objectives of assuring that the local government is able to provide necessary or cause to be provided governmental services essential to the public health, safety and welfare and assuring the fiscal accountability of the local government.” Yet the section has no references to guaranteeing such essential services as education, healthcare, transportation, housing and so forth. Rather it begins by requiring that “all aspects of the operations of the local government” be conducted “within the resources available according to the emergency manager’s revenue estimate.” The second item listed is “The payment in full of the scheduled debt service requirements on all bonds, notes and municipal securities.” The third is “The modification, rejection, termination and renegotiation of contracts.”
Section 18 also includes the very broad power for the “manager” to take “Any other actions considered necessary by the emergency manager in the emergency manager’s discretion to achieve the objectives of the financial and operating plan, alleviate the financial emergency, and remove the local government from receivership.”
It is again notable that the objectives of providing for the rights of the people, all contending with high levels of poverty, unemployment and foreclosures, are absent. Michigan cities like Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor have among the highest poverty and unemployment rates nationwide, which impacts the “available revenues.” The context for the repeated demand for “acting within the resources available,” as decided by the “manager,” also includes the major cuts in both federal and state funding now occurring. Yet contending with these social problems is not the aim of the law. In addition, this section specifically states that the “manager” will conduct a public informational meeting on the financial plan he creates. But this “does not mean that the emergency manager must receive public approval before he or she implements the plan.” Actions by these “managers” to date show that the aim of the plans is to meet the demands of the monopolies that all public funds are handed over to them.
This can be further seen in Section 19, which outlines additional powers including those concerning budgets, debts and collective bargaining. The “manager” has power to:
“Amend, revise, approve, or disapprove the budget of the local government, and limit the total amount appropriated or expended.
“Receive and disburse on behalf of the local government all federal, state, and local funds earmarked for the local government. These funds may include, but are not limited to, funds for specific programs and the retirement of debt.
“Require and approve or disapprove, or amend or revise a plan for paying all outstanding obligations of the local government.”
The “manager” can also mandate reports and examine all records and books of account.
Powers Concerning Terminating Contracts
Concerning jobs, payrolls and contracts, the “manager” can “make, approve, or disapprove any appropriation, contract, expenditure, or loan,” create new positions, review payrolls before paying them, and “reject, modify, or terminate 1 or more terms and conditions of an existing contract.” The “manager” is the sole agent of local government for all collective bargaining. The law also specifically makes this power to “reject, modify or terminate” existing contracts the “manager’s sole discretion and judgment.” Clearly anticipating resistance from the workers and their unions, it elaborates that after meeting with the “appropriate bargaining representative,” if, in the “manager’s” sole discretion a “prompt and satisfactory resolution is unlikely,” then he can simply proceed to change or eliminate the contract. The law further adds that such action is “a legitimate exercise of the state’s sovereign powers.” Thus, the law is serving to make “legal” the state’s ability, using these “managers,” to simply decree that a contract is not a contract and that the state and its appointed “managers” will reject, modify or terminate contracts.
In an effort to hide this arbitrary action and blatant notice to workers that “managers” will simply dictate terms and conditions of work, certain “conditions” are required. These include that the “financial emergency” and implementation of the manager’s financial plans make it “reasonable and necessary” for such action to be taken. The “rejection, modification or termination,” is supposed to “serve a significant and legitimate public purpose,” “deal with a broad generalized economic problem,” and address “the financial emergency for the benefit of the public as a whole.” Clearly, upholding existing contracts and negotiations are not considered “for the benefit of the public as a whole!” It also requires that the rejection, modification or termination be temporary and does not target “specific classes of employees.” It does not define how long temporary is, nor what constitutes “specific classes of employees.”
This section also gives the “manager” powers concerning pensions and pension boards, including removal of the boards and giving sole power to the “manager” to “exercise the authority and fiduciary responsibilities of the local pension board.” These include setting the pension obligations of the local government. Changes to a local pension fund have to be approved by the state treasurer — which in Michigan is also a position appointed by the Governor.
Powers Concerning Removal of Elected Governance
The authority of the chief administrative officer, such as a Mayor or County Executive, and local governing bodies to “exercise power for and on behalf of the local government” is suspended and vested in the “manager.” The “emergency manager” is given the power, at his discretion, to remove elected officials, consolidate or eliminate departments, remove administrators including heads of departments or “other elected officials.” He can “remove, replace, appoint or confirm the appointments to office to any office, board, commission, authority or other entity of local governance.” Anyone so removed immediately loses all salary and benefits, including post-employment benefits, with the exception of vested pensions. The “manager” can also restore such salary and benefits for “such time and on such terms” as the “manager” decides.
He can hire a private company to serve as “auditor,” paid for by local government and with authority to conduct -investigations and forensic audits and to “detect and deter waste, fraud and abuse.” He also has authority to hire other personnel at local expense.
The local auditor, who is not accountable to the public but only to the appointed “manager,” is to “assure that internal controls over local government operations are designed and operating effectively to mitigate risks that hamper the achievement of the emergency manager’s financial plan.” Government operations are to be “effective and efficient,” and assets are to be “properly managed.”
While the public no doubt wants governance that is effective, efficient and free of fraud, there is also no doubt this law will not provide it. Current experience with the content given to “effective” “efficient” and “proper,” is mass layoffs, fewer workers doing more, more quickly, and brutal attacks on living and working conditions of the people. In terms of fraud, neither the “manager” nor his appointed “auditor,” are accountable to the public. And given the arbitrary powers of the “manager” to hire and fire, the law essentially enshrines favoritism and corruption.
The “manager” can also contract with other local governments, public bodies or private entities for the provision of services — meaning such functions as water supply, garbage collection, police and fire, snow removal and highway repair, etc. can be contracted out and privatized.
In addition, the “manager,” at the expense of the local government or school district, can initiate court proceedings to “enforce compliance with any of his or her orders.” He can require that elected officials “promptly and fully provide the assistance and information necessary and properly requested” by the manager or his “review teams.” If the “manager believes” this is not being done, he can issue subpoenas and administer oaths to elected or appointed officials, contractors and workers, to compel testimony and also take them to court. In this manner, local government and workers are being criminalized, witch-hunts by the managers are given the green light and the local government must pay all the court costs. Further, the manager has authority to determine if “criminal conduct” was done by elected officials and recommend to the attorney general that charges be brought.
All of this serves to criminalize elected officials and public workers, and make resistance by them a crime before it even occurs. Even so, demonstrations have continued and Benton Harbor’s City Commission has continued its rejection of the law and the “manager,” as unjust and unconstitutional. On June 22, twenty-eight people from across Michigan filed a lawsuit charging Governor Rick Snyder and the state legislature with implementing an unconstitutional law that silences citizens.
Powers Concerning Borrowing and Sale of Assets
Throughout the law, emphasis is given to guaranteeing debt service payments to the monopolies. The “manager” is given authority to authorize the borrowing of money and approve or disapprove the issuance of bonds. He can enter into agreements with creditors for payment or restructuring of debts. There is little doubt that such restructuring will be done to the benefit of Wall Street and “protecting state credit,” which Wall Street determines.
The “manager” can order elections on property taxes, known as “millage elections.” He cannot require that such taxes be levied, only that such a millage election be done. The election has to be held during the general November election and voters make the decision. Giving him such authority however opens space for making demands concerning taxes.
The “manager” can “sell, lease, convey, assign, or otherwise use or transfer the assets, liabilities, or responsibilities of the local government,” with approval from the Governor or by including such action in his financial plan. The “manager” can also issue no-bid contracts, on contracts worth $50,000 or more, with approval of the state treasurer. While there is general authority to sell public assets, like school buildings and libraries, the manager cannot “sell or transfer a public utility furnishing light, heat or power,” without approval of the majority of voters. This exception is in recognition of requirements of the state constitution. The manager also cannot use such public utilities to satisfy general obligations. It is important to note that water rights and services are not included and are subject to sale. This is particularly important given that Michigan borders Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior. Benton Harbor, a main testing ground for implementing the law at this time, sits on Lake Michigan.
In case anyone thought these powers were not enough, as indicated above, the law gives the “manager” the authority to “take any other action or exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission, or other similar entity of the local government.” Thus broad impunity to take “any action,” including police actions, is authorized. At the same time, the law states that the “manager” is “immune from liability,” as is anyone he hires. The “manager” is also the one that decides when the condition of “financial emergency,” is over. Thus, his rule can be for an indefinite period of time. Existing experience, with control boards and similar appointed authorities is that even when the financial conditions set are met, these appointed boards and managers do not relinquish their control. This means school districts and cities like Detroit and Benton Harbor could be under such arbitrary dictate of appointed authorities for years to come.