Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law was signed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on March 16, 2011, effective the same day. It enables a governor to appoint an emergency manager to take control of local governments and school districts found insolvent by a review board. The review board is appointed by the governor, and, yes, so is the emergency manager.
The emergency manager serves at the pleasure of the governor; only the governor can fire one. The act allows an appointed EM to break labor contracts, make sweeping budget cuts, fire elected officials, and sell city assets, among other powers, without the consent of the public or the people the public elected to serve them. Why? According to the following excerpt from the law, officially called Public Act 4 of 2011:
“The legislature hereby determines that the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this state would be materially and adversely affected by the insolvency of local governments and that the fiscal accountability of local governments is vitally necessary to the interests of the citizens of this state to assure the provision of necessary governmental services essential to public health, safety, and welfare. The legislature further determines that it is vitally necessary to protect the credit of this state and its political subdivisions and that it is necessary for the public good and it is a valid public purpose for this state to take action and to assist a local government in a condition of financial stress or financial emergency so as to remedy the stress or emergency by requiring prudent fiscal management and efficient provision of services, permitting the restructuring of contractual obligations, and prescribing the powers and duties of state and local government officials and emergency managers. The legislature, therefore, determines that the authority and powers conferred by this act constitute a necessary program and serve a valid public purpose.”
In other words, the state believes control of selected cities, towns and school districts in financial trouble should be transferred to state-appointed managers with powers that would be unconstitutional for elected officials to use. The state decides which cities these are.
Activists across Michigan continued protesting after the signing of Public Act 4, which strengthens and broadens powers held by an “emergency financial manager” under a previous version of the law.
In fact, activists collected 228,000 signatures, more than enough, on a petition to put repeal of Public Act 4 to a vote on the November 6, 2012, Michigan statewide ballot. If the repeal stays on the ballot, the law will be suspended.
But the Michigan Board of State Canvassers challenged the petitions’ validity on grounds that the three-word headers were printed in the wrong font size: 12-point instead of the required 14-point. It was acting on a complaint from Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a group formed by members of the politically conservative and partisan Michigan Chamber of Commerce to oppose ballot petitions they disagree with.
To decide whether the font was the right size or not, the board of canvassers called experts to testify. In this video, expert witness Michael Migrin, who retired after 22 years as a printer for the state, says the font size is correct and describes with some amusement his view of the partisan pettiness of challenge (don’t miss his tie):
Chris Corneal, a Michigan State University professor, also provided expert testimony finding the font size correct.
Made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, the board split the vote. The Democrats voted to accept the petition while the Republicans voted to deny it, despite the expert testimony.
To break the tie, the question went to a three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel. The judges, all Republicans, acknowledged that a 30-year-old precedent that required them to accept an imperfect petition if it substantially complies with the law. Still, they asked that a panel of seven special judges consider it further, delaying the petition again. The full appeals court voted to refuse and ordered the board of canvassers to put the question on the November ballot.
It’s not difficult to imagine why all of this effort, time, and cost was exhausted around a trivial technicality, in fact, a false technicality. Desperate measures wasted taxpayer money in a partisan attempt to block a ballot measure restoring power to the citizens. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility likely knew the conclusion but hoped to create a delay long enough to keep the proposal off the November ballot. Justice has prevailed, this time. Republicans learned valuable lesson: size doesn’t matter.
The question remains whether the case will go to the Michigan Supreme Court and, if it does, whether the court will hear it. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility plans to appeal, according to a spokesman for the group. Hopefully, their appeal won’t be delayed by paperwork submitted in the wrong font type.
– Terry Hall