EDUCATION
06/22/2011 05:15 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2011

Michigan Groups Sue Gov. Snyder Over 'Emergency Manager' Law, Calling It A 'Power Grab'

Nearly 30 Michigan residents filed a lawsuit Wednesday that seeks to overturn a law that gave state-appointed "emergency managers" near carte blanche in cases of state takeover of indebted municipalities and school districts.

The suit names Gov. Rick Snyder (R) as a defendant, and claims the law is unconstitutional because it suspends home rule, eliminates citizens' voting rights and violates the separation of powers. The suit also names State Treasurer Andy Dillon as a defendant.

The law in question, Public Act 4, passed in March and gave Snyder the power to appoint "emergency managers" in cities in financial disarray, revising an earlier law that allowed for the appointment of "emergency financial managers," a more circumscribed role. The suit claims the managers, endowed with fuller powers, have made local elected officials moot.

Several groups, including Detroit's Sugar Law Center and New York's Center for Constitutional Rights, are representing the plaintiffs in the suit.

"We haven’t seen this form of government put in place over a locality before," said John Philo of the Sugar Law Center. "It says you're not going to have local elected officials. They'll have one person with absolute authority. People across the country assume that if there's going to be a government, it's going to be an elected one."

The complaint alleges:

The Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act, Act No. 4, Public Acts of 2011, MCL §§ 141.1501 et. seq. (the Act) effectively establishes a new form of local government within the State of Michigan. The new form of government allows Michigan cities, villages, townships, and other forms of municipal corporations to be ruled by one unelected official and that this official’s orders, appointments, expenditures, and other decisions are not reviewable by local elected officials or local voters.

The complaint also notes that local citizens pay for the managers' salaries, which range from $11,000 to $33,000 a month.

Emergency managers are currently in place in the cities of Pontiac, Benton Harbor and Ecorse. Detroit's public schools have been run by an emergency financial manager since 2009, when the earlier law put Robert Bobb in charge of the city's schools. Public Act 4 made Bobb and now his successor, Roy Roberts, emergency managers, with even more power over the district.

"When the recent legislation was signed in March to change [the DPS emergency financial manager] to an emergency manager, that just made matters even worse," said Edith Lee-Payne, a Detroit civil rights activist signed onto the suit. "Then the elected school board had absolutely no voice."

The suit comes two days after Snyder and Roberts introduced sweeping reforms that would siphon off the city's worst-performing schools into a special state-run district. That special district, Snyder said, would eventually expand to include low-performing schools throughout the state.

"In my opinion, the [schools] plan is an opportunity to do more privatization -- which is what this legislature would like to see," Lee-Payne said.

The schools plan left some Detroiters feeling like they had no influence over their city's educational future -- in part because Public Act 4, which granted Synder and then Roberts fuller control of DPS, passed with no support from the legislators who represent Detroit.

"We can't get any traction in the legislature because it's statewide," state Rep. Harvey Santana (D-Detroit), who voted against Public Act 4 in March, told The Huffington Post.

As for the school district's emergency manager, Santana said, "There's no say by anybody in Detroit."

Evelyn Foreman, a former DPS teacher, said she signed onto the lawsuit for precisely that reason.

"It was bad enough when we had the emergency financial manager. They're giving this one person more power to make all of these decisions excluding the citizens," she said. "The rights of the citizens are to make choices."

Detroit Public Schools representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

Philo stressed that the suit does not target the education plan specifically, but goes after Public Act 4.

"Our lawsuit is not about a particular policy," he said. "It's about an unconstitutional power grab."

State Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Detroit), who also voted against Public Act 4, told HuffPost he expects Senate Democrats to support the lawsuit.

"I think it's high time for a lawsuit. It's something I'd been expecting and hoping for," he said. "I and other Democrats believe it was an unconstitutional law in the first place, and I expect that we will be victorious."

But Sara Wurfel, a spokesperson for Snyder, noted the original emergency financial manager law had been the brainchild of a Democratic government, and dates to 1988.

"This is not a partisan issue by any stretch of the imagination," she said.

Snyder, Wurfel said, called for changes to the law early in his tenure as governor "because he felt it was critical to update the law to provide more early-warning indicators and some additional tools" with the purpose of "avoiding emergency managers in the first place." She added that Snyder hopes not to appoint any more emergency managers in the future.

In Detroit, Roberts moved forward with his plan to overhaul the district and address DPS' $237 million budget deficit Wednesday. The Detroit Free Press reported that Roberts will cut non-teaching jobs from DPS to make good on his promise to direct more money to the classroom. Roberts also said he would reduce the number of people reporting directly to him from 30 to 7.

Detroit Public Schools also made several hiring announcements Wednesday: Karen P. Ridgeway, who currently serves as Assistant Superintendent of the Office of Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability, will work as interim Superintendent for Academics. Gwendolyn A. de Jongh, Chief Labor Relations Officer, will become the Chief Human Resources Officer.