Another blog. That’s just what the world has been crying out for, right? Yet another blog. Especially one that doesn’t yet have a name, and is still searching for the right voice. A permanent home with a web page of its own also remains in the future. And actual, substantial content … that too is yet to come.
Other than that, though, everything is good to go.
So, let's begin this experiment in nonprofit journalism by turning to the traditional five Ws -- who, what, when, where, why -- and scrambling their order, going straight to the last one first.
Why has the ACLU of Michigan hired a reporter to investigate and write about issues involving emergency management and open government in this state?
The short answer is this: The suspension of democracy in financially stressed cities and school districts spread across Michigan is an unprecedented occurrence. There have never been laws that go as far as PA 4, which was quickly rejected by voters, and its hastily enacted replacement, PA 436.
New legal ground is being broken here, with appointed officials assuming near-dictatorial powers as the state pursues a radical change in how it deals with local units of government facing insolvency. People can still vote for mayors, city council members and the local school board, but the only power those elected officials have is dependent on how much authority a particular EM decides to grant them.
There are some, perhaps many, who believe that the takeover of Detroit and other local units of government is both necessary and legal, and that the state has the right to seize control when financial crises erupt. If it didn't, the reasoning goes, insolvency might spread like a contagion as big lenders shut off the tap.
So when the legislature passes a bill, and the governor signs it into law, even if the result is that duly elected local officials are neutered of power, often reduced to figureheads and rubber stamps while an appointed manager wields almost limitless authority, that's just democracy at work.
Whether this approach to governance is actually constitutional remains a matter to be sorted out by the courts. (And keeping close tabs on that litigation is part of this blog's purpose.) But legal or not -- to deny certain citizens the right of having elected representatives make critical decisions that will affect their well-being far into the future, well, even Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr doesn't call that democracy.
"While we are very pleased," Orr said after a federal judge approved the declaration of bankruptcy he sought, "we remain very concerned to adjust the city's debt and improve the level of service for its citizens and to also prepare for the city to exit this receivership in a fashion that restores democracy to the city."
It is good that EM Orr is concerned about restoring democracy. So is the ACLU of Michigan.
The ACLU of Michigan has a long history of defending individual rights and liberties, and there’s nothing more fundamental than the right to choose our leaders at the ballot box. The fact that the people forced to endure this curtailment of a fundamental right are, in large part, African-American and poor intensifies the concern.
As it stands now, six of the nine cities where the state is currently intervening are predominantly African-American. More than 50 percent of Michigan’s African-Americans live in cities that have an emergency manager, receivership-transition advisory board, or consent agreement in place.
This is also a matter of class as well as race. Every other city that’s been taken over has a poverty rate two to three times higher than the state average, with the exception of Allen Park.
Adding to the significance of all this is the fact that many outside of Michigan are watching with a keen eye: Public retirees and employees, unions and civil rights groups, Wall Street bankers and corporations looking to cash in on privatization and asset sales -- all those and more have a potential stake in what happens here, especially if it becomes a model that other states adopt.
No one, however, has more at stake than the hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents who have already had fundamental democratic rights curtailed.