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Michigan’s Frankenstein

Gary Caruso | Friday, September 21, 2012

“Frankenstein,” Mary Shelly’s iconic Gothic horror tale, has been embellished throughout the literary and artistic worlds since its first publication in the early 1800s. Behind the novel’s plot lies Victor Frankenstein who, from an early age attempts to instill life into lifeless bodies. Eventually, when his creature is finally born, the replicated beauty he anticipates is in fact a stomach-turning hideous monster. What began with the noblest of intentions becomes an abject fiend.
In Michigan, a similarly monstrous statewide referendum simmers atop their November ballot. Voters will decide whether to overturn Public Act 4, the state’s so-called Emergency Manager Law. Under this act, the state government – like Frankenstein himself – attempts to breathe new life into fiscally lifeless communities through a brutal control process. The ill-conceived law thrusts conflict into local communities by bestowing broad, unbridled, unilateral power upon a solitary state appointee who wrestles authority away from the locally elected officials in a city or school district.
A released poll this week from the Lansing-based firm, Marketing Resource Group, found Republicans (62 percent) overwhelming favor appointing emergency czars as compared to supportive Democrats (29 percent). The GOP views the law as a way to improve depressed regions in Michigan. Conversely, Democrats believe emergency managers spuriously overreach into the sovereign jurisdiction of local communities. Ironically, both sides cite the current widespread deployment of this Michigan monster to support themselves.
Today, state appointees are in place controlling the operations of the cities of Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Flint and Pontiac while Detroit, Inkster and River Rouge operate under consent agreements. The public school districts in Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights are also under the total control of these state-appointed “emergency” managers who unnecessarily swoop in with almost absolute powers. Unfortunately, these managers routinely seize all daily operational responsibility from duly elected officials or impose operational guidelines through strict consent agreements. Like Frankenstein’s grotesque monster, these managers extract the local soul from traditional community self-rule procedures.
This Michigan approach of granting unfettered authority to an outsider is fundamentally undemocratic. The act as it currently stands is wrong on two fronts. First, it is absolutely un-American to enshrine a sole czar who can goosestep into a community and usurp the will of the electorate by hijacking the duties of duly elected public representatives. Our nation’s history is littered with wars in which our forefathers sacrificed their lives to stand against such principles.
Secondly, the emergency manager’s authority should not allow for any one individual to personally establish initiatives within a community to solve a fiscal crisis. The manager’s role should be modeled on the process established in the Voting Rights Act whereby the courts and U.S. Justice Department have oversight through an approval or veto authority. It is essential for the locally elected representatives to decide which methods best reduce costs in reaching a benchmark, not for the emergency manager to dictate policy. A city council member, school board member and mayor – always accountable to the voting citizenry – must decide which difficult path to walk while balancing choices like closing down a library as opposed to reducing the police force ranks.
Such measured and balanced approaches avoid potentially hostile conflicts like when a Detroit-based czar tries to dictate policy cuts to an Upper Peninsula community, or vice versa. One needs to look no farther than at two states’ recent but differing attempts to close budget deficits. The labor-friendly Maryland governor invited labor to the negotiating table while the Wisconsin governor attacked the entire public sector union structure through a contentious fight followed by a chaotic recall process. Both states ultimately reduced their deficits, albeit with quite opposite public goodwill.
Authoritarian conflict need not be the fabric upon which Public Act 4 currently creates a combative atmosphere. Local communities must decide how to meet financial goals within established timelines rather than allow outside czars to force a political or personal or foreign philosophy upon their community ideals. Moreover, to perfect Public Act 4, a new mandate must exist that requires elected officials to fulfill their duties in good faith under predetermined statewide guidelines or face their own recall and removal. Emergency managers – or for larger municipalities, control boards – must partner with localities to reach budgetary goals through an approval or veto process. Never should one person individually or unilaterally dictate specific policy to an elected body on how to achieve bottom-line benchmarks.
Voiding the Emergency Manager Law allows for a much-needed rewrite or “Young Frankenstein” revision – guiding localities through a fiscal crisis while engaging local officials to make hard decisions. Elected officials must choose methods that are never the antithesis of their local community values or traditions. That sensible solution always stimulates the type of happy singing that ended the “Young Frankenstein” movie as it faded to a closed.

Gary Caruso, a 1973 graduate of Notre Dame, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him at: GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.