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Time to Recognize Michigan Citizens Acting to Overturn the Undemocratic Emergency Manager Law

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Even with the February 29 delivery of over 226,000 signatures to a petition to overturn Public Act 4 (also known as the Emergency Manager Law), there has been another brave and bold attempt to overthrow a law that U.S. Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, called "draconian and anti-democratic." Conyers has recommended the measure for review by the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

That other brave and bold action to over turn the Emergency Manager Law was taken by 28 Michigan citizens who were presented with the Maurice Sugar Voice for Justice Award by the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice during a special "Essential Advocacy for Community Justice" reception in November. I'm privileged to note that my colleague at the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Ahmina Maxey is among those brave Michiganders recognized for their roles as plaintiffs in Sugar Law's legal action challenging the Emergency Manager Law.

With this legal action currently working its way through the judicial system, and the law itself now in question of being suspended pending a November referendum if at least 161,305 of those signatures can be certified, it's no wonder to those who have advocated for the measure like Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing scrambling to ram through an equally questionable "consent decree" that would do the undemocratic dirty work for them in the short term.

I'll talk more on that later. Right now, I thought it appropriate that one week after the one-year anniversary of Public Act 4 to take time in recognizing those Michiganders like Ahmina who were willing to sign their names onto the Sugar Law legal action as well as the petition to over turn the law.

"They have all been phenomenal," said Sugar Law Executive Director Tova Perlmutter. "We have 28 people from all over the state. Some of them are from extremely beleaguered communities that already do have an emergency manager. Some of them are from communities that are at risk of having emergency managers. Some of them are from communities that probably won't have to cope with that because they are affluent, but every one of these individuals believe that this is an affront to their rights as a voter in the state of Michigan."

Joining Maxey in receiving the award were Libby Brown of Jackson, Lori Christenson of Southfield, Jay Clancey of Negaunee, Betsy Coffia of Traverse City, Barbara Davenport of Pontiac, Barbara Ford of Detroit, Evelyn Foreman of Detroit, Dave Frederick of Montague, Hon. Juanita Henry of Benton Harbor, Dave Ivers of St. Clair Shores, Paul Jordan of Flint, Emma Kinnard of Benton Harbor, Maryion Lee of Flushing, Edith Lee-Payne of Detroit, Leslie Little of Detroit, Michelle Martinez of Southwest Detroit, Michael Merriweather of Ann Arbor, Pat O'Connor of Pontiac, Lisa Oliver-King of Grand Rapids, Tameka Ramsey of Pontiac, George and Brenda Reeber of Ludington, Sister Suzanne Sattler of Detroit, Marcia Sikora of Farmington Hills, Kym Spring of Grand Rapids, Jacquie Steingold of Detroit and Irene Wright of Pontiac. Their range of occupations include: Catholic nun, college professor, educator, psychologist, social worker, community organizer, wetlands biologist, college student, homemaker, business agent, a registered nurse, an anesthesia technician, an electrical contractor, an IT professional and retirees.

Public Act 4 has also been called the "Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act." It stipulates that if the governor designates a financial emergency for a city, he can appoint an emergency manager who has total control over the city's operations -- not just the finances. It's interesting to note that Bing is on record as lobbying for the job -- while in office as the mayor no less. Of course, he's since tried to reposition himself in opposition to it, but a good look at the consent decree reveals that it in essence makes Bing a defacto emergency manager.

When an emergency manager is in place, the governing body and chief administrative officer of the unit of local government are prohibited from exercising any of their powers of offices without written approval of the emergency manager, and their compensation and benefits are eliminated. Within 45 days of appointment, an emergency manager must develop a written financial and operating plan. In addition to other powers, an emergency manager may reject, modify, or terminate collective bargaining agreements, recommend consolidation or dissolution of units of local government.

"Although I did not grow up in Detroit, it has a place in my heart like nowhere else," said Maxey, who has since relocated into Detroit proper. "I came back to Detroit to be closer to my people, my culture, and my family and I am working hard to see Detroit rise up as a great city. However, I am fearful of living in a city where I have no democratic rights as a citizen. This law squanders my rights as a citizen of Michigan and a resident of Detroit."

Sugar Law's challenge to Public Act 4 is currently in litigation at the lower court level. However, Snyder has attempted to head off the challenge by fast tracking it directly to the state supreme court. The state supreme court is currently considering whether to bypass the lower court's scrutiny and take up the lawsuit directly.

Whether or not the legal challenge falls on deaf ears to the state's judicial or political systems, Sugar Law, a national non-profit organization dedicated to defending the rights of working people and their communities since 1991, is hopeful that their challenge to the EM law will at least raise awareness in the court of public opinion around what many believe to be an affront to the basic principles of democracy on which our society is founded.

"We went into this as a lawsuit, but also as a public education campaign," Perlmutter said. "It's part of how we operate because we truly believe at the Sugar Law Center that we don't just take on cases for a victory. We take on cases to work with the people in the community to try and work on issues that matter to them.

"We have tried from the beginning to explain to the press and to the public that this is an emergency. It's an emergency for Democracy. Fiscal issues are not an emergency. The emergency for people is around their own lives. I think our legal director, John Philo captured it best when he said, 'This law is about the belief that the only people who should have voting rights are the people with wealth. 'If you don't have money, Democracy is a luxury that you can't afford.'

"We don't believe that and we don't believe the people of this state believe that. We need help in getting the word out and that's part of the reason why we are doing the case. (The plaintiffs) have all given their time and their energy. They are spreading the word about this and putting lots of energy into defeating this outrage."