Emergency Managers and Their Destruction of Democracy

Written by Hannah Schwartz on June 22, 2016

Who are they? Emergency managers are individuals appointed by state governments to administer a city or county that is struggling financially.
What do they do? Emergency managers take charge of local government, usually making decisions intended to stabilize city or county finances. Their specific roles differ among the 19 states that have emergency manager laws.
How are they problematic? In theory, emergency manager laws are in place to supply aid and expertise to financially stressed localities. In practice, these laws too often lack basic provisions, creating a system that is flawed for the following reasons:
1. Too much power. Some states give emergency managers authority to override the decisions of local elected officials, effectively stripping power from the voters. Often, the role of these officials is limited to retaining only the façade of a democracy—such as “kissing babies and cutting ribbons,” according to Nayyirah Shariff, a political activist and resident of Flint, MI who got an up close look at the issue when a manger took charge of her city in 2014. A public water crisis in Flint, beginning in April of 2014, has focused national attention on the extensive power of emergency managers.
2. They lack accountability and transparency. Emergency managers generally report only to the governor and the state treasurer, not to local residents.  Their actions and decisions for the city often are hidden, further limiting the ability of citizens to advocate for their rights.
3. They prioritize budgets over people. In Michigan, “the goal of the emergency manager laws is to put public resources into private hands,” and to enforce “the ideology of profit by any means necessary,” Shariff said. Prioritizing a balanced budget over basic regulations can carry a human cost:  an emergency manager drove the decision to switch Flint’s water source to the Flint River, and then failed to ensure that the water was properly treated to prevent lead poisoning.
“I now have seizures and cannot drive. So what’s the price tag on that?” – Nayyirah Shariff
4. They are discriminatory. It’s no coincidence that the economically distressed communities where emergency manager laws generally are invoked are most often communities of color.
What can be done? Through protests, discussions, and the formation of advocacy groups, the residents of Flint have demonstrated that citizens retain the power to bring attention to and push change in emergency manager systems. These activists remind us of the importance of being aware of when our state’s laws are failing us, and taking action when necessary.

Office: Common Cause Michigan, Common Cause National

Issues: More Democracy Reforms

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