"Everything's on the table," said Kevyn Orr, regarding his intent to use his Emergency Manager power to trump Detroit's city government authority, strip the Mayor and city council members of their salaries, and restructure the city's services and finances. While no one questions the truth in that statement, what's left unsaid is that this table is only a table for one -- and seated at its head is Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder. But the opposition from the Detroit City Council and Mayor, Detroit residents, unions and churches (led by Rev. Jesse Jackson) are not interested, with good reason, in what the governor is ordering for them.
As the Governor said during his inauguration speech on January 1, 2011, "We can only achieve extraordinary things if we aspire beyond traditional thinking." He wasn't lying. The governor has undoubtedly engaged in a battle against tradition by solidifying executive power like the concrete that made Detroit the first city in U.S. history to have paved roads. This power has indeed resulted in something extraordinary -- a federal investigation brought forth by two Michigan Congresspeople, a lawsuit over the constitutionality of his actions, and over 40 planned acts of civil disobedience in protest.
The governor's point on aspiring beyond tradition is spot on. Traditionally, the U.S. government embraces a system of federalism where a central government shall not have unchecked power over provincial bodies of government. The chicken scratch on the Bill of Rights' 10th Amendment reads as follows: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. Essentially, our forefathers insisted on a tradition where the federal government does not supremely rule over the states except to enforce that which is mandated in the U.S Constitution. Extrapolating those rules of order even further downstream, a state government shall not supremely rule over local governments except for cases mandated by the state constitution.
In addition to tossing federalism aside, Gov. Snyder is throwing out the tradition of democracy. People elect officials who represent their interest at all levels of government. When government officials are not working in their best interests, people vote them out or vote to overturn the laws the officials have created. One coincidentally good example of this is the overturning of Public Act 4, an act signed into law by Gov. Snyder in March 2011, which expanded the powers of Emergency Managers to overrule financially distressed municipal governments and school districts. "These powers included the right to sell public assets (as an attempt to curb the city's $327 million debt) and dismember union contracts (auto workers, anyone?)." However, Public Act 4 was repealed by Michigan residents who organized, petitioned, and voted to overturn it in a referendum merely eight months later in November. Of course, this exertion of the people's sovereignty was swiftly and casually dismissed by the Governor through his signing of the Emergency Manager Law yet again, but under a new name, Public Act 436 -- a dangerous law that became effective March 28, 2013.
The law attempts to mitigate public indignation by providing a generous provision: 18 months after the law goes into effect, the City Council can repeal the Emergency Manager Law with a two-thirds vote. This gives the people of Detroit 18 months to relax and leave their fates in the hands of Rick Snyder's right-hand man, Kevyn Orr, whose former law firm, Jones Day, will be serving as the city's "restructuring consultant" and also (surprise!) represents many of the big banks that hold Detroit's debt. One might suggest a conflict of interest for Jones Day, but Gov. Snyder must have turned a blind eye, as he quickly appointed Kevyn Orr as the necessarily objective Emergency Manager.
Detroit's financial problems are not profoundly the product of an imperfect local government. The systemic problems of federal deregulation and the growing pains of a transitioning economy are significantly large pieces of the puzzle. Is this a blithe quick-fix? Or is an emergency manager the solution? Sweeping executive power has rendered some substantial results if you look at China's booming economy, Singapore's clean streets, or the Orwellian security of 1984.
Detroit under the helm of an Emergency Manager may bring back a public bus system and city lights, but what about some of the other things on the table, like Detroit's democracy and sovereignty? When you give something up, sometimes it never returns to the table. Is this really a fight to embrace democracy or is this the populist ideology of the occupiers of Wall Street? The next few weeks will be telling, but if the organized opposition of the Detroit's disenfranchised has anything to say about it, they'll get their own table and take a seat. Gov. Rick Snyder certainly won't be ordering their dinner.