Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder has pulled a “Rosewood” and stripped the black township of Benton Harbor of its right to operate in its chosen form and soon the town will likely lose its right to exist.
Snyder’s first months in office were successful in passing a new Emergency Financial Management law, which critics described as a “financial dictator’s law.” The law strips elected officials of power and citizens of their voting rights. Just days before, Snyder used the same law to violate the contracts between the Detroit School System and its teachers union.
Emergency financial manager laws are not new, but never before have they been used in this manner. Usually, a mechanism to help distressed cities and towns, state appointed financial managers of the past largely guided these small governments back to financial health.
But the 2010 elections changed that philosophy. Last year, the then-govorner of Michigan designated Joseph Harris as Benton Harbor’s emergency manager. But under new powers granted to Gov. Snyder by the Republican-controlled state legislature, Harris has claimed unprecedented authority as Benton Harbor’s state-appointed financial manager. According to media reports, over the past year Harris had already been sharply criticized for cutting fire department services in the city and for allegedly abusing his expense account.
The rationale of why Benton Harbor would be targeted as opposed to any other poor township in Michigan reveals reasons that are quite disturbing. Rep. Fred Upton, a high-ranking Republican leader in the House of Representatives, has been linked to a group that has sought control of Benton Harbor’s lakefront property. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC reported that a private group, Harbor Shores, and a Whirlpool-owned real estate company previously sought the privatization of parkland owned by the city of Benton Harbor. With the dissolving of the rights of elected officials and citizens, the road is paved for Harbor Shores to build a luxury golf course. The cost of a membership to the proposed golf course will be over $5,000 per year. In contrast, the average annual household income of Benton Harbor is roughly $10,000. Benton Harbor residents have renewed their call to boycott Whirlpool. Like many Michigan communities, Benton Harbor has been economically depressed for years. Previously, headquartered near Benton Harbor, Whirlpool, like other multinational corporations in Michigan, left local communities in recent years for cheaper labor elsewhere. For Benton Harbor, that abandonment saw the city’s fortunes grow dire.
Local media also reported last week that Joseph Harris personally reorganized a local government development agency that would have otherwise blocked permits to prevent the construction of the golf course. New members of the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and Planning Commission, appointed by Harris, seem inclined to go forward with the golf course. The people and elected officials of Benton Harbor have been effectively “boxed in” legislatively along party ideology.