Roger Fraser says Michigan's emergency manager law is 'an orderly alternative to bankruptcy'
Michigan Deputy State Treasurer Roger Fraser said his research on the effects of bankruptcy on local communities led him to talk last fall with the city manager in Ventura, Calif.
Fraser said Ventura is now a little bit less than five years into its bankruptcy experience, and the city isn't out of the woods yet.
"The relationships of Ventura with its community, with its employees, with its neighboring cities have been described by this individual as abysmal," Fraser said. "They have just been through hell trying to work their way through bankruptcy."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
He used Ventura as an example Monday night to talk about why Public Act 4 — otherwise known as Michigan's new emergency manager law — is a better alternative to bankruptcy for a community in financial distress.
"We would hope that P.A. 4 offers an orderly alternative to bankruptcy — that there are ways for us to work through this process and make sure that communities become viable again in a way that they're unable to accomplish by their own," Fraser said.
Fraser shared the stage with three other panelists during a 90-minute panel discussion hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. More than 100 people were in attendance, including a number of local elected and appointed officials.
Panelists examined the impact of the state's emergency manager law on citizens, public employees, local governments and communities in Michigan.
Fraser, Ann Arbor's former city administrator, now oversees the emergency manager program as deputy state treasurer for local government services in Michigan. He sat immediately next to Eastern Michigan University graduate Brandon Jessup, who is chairman and CEO of Michigan Forward, a public policy organization working to repeal the emergency manager law.
Other panelists included Joseph Harris, the emergency manager in Benton Harbor, and Dayne Walling, the mayor of Flint and and founder of Flint Club.
Jessup disagreed with Fraser on many points, calling the emergency manager law a "naked power grab" by the state, one that presents a clear threat to democracy.
"Michigan cannot turn away from democracy in these times of uncertainty that are facing our local communities," he said, decrying the fact that emergency managers have the ability to cancel public contracts and sell off a government's assets.
Jessup used phrases like "political hammer" and "anti-democracy" when talking about a consent agreement Gov. Rick Snyder delivered to the city of Detroit last week. The agreement is an attempt by the governor to avoid appointing an emergency manager there.
"At a glance, this agreement provides a waiver of legal recourse, a $1 million severance to unelected officials and supersedes any ballot initiative that may alter the state of Michigan's EM law," Jessup said, noting that Michigan Forward and the Stand Up for Democracy Coalition submitted 226,637 signatures to the state Feb. 29 to push a public referendum on P.A. 4.
Jessup said one of the coalition's opponents, Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Accountability — which he called "a super PAC from Grand Rapids" — has formally requested to review the submission and Michigan Forward anticipates a strong challenge from the organization.
Jessup said Michigan's emergency manager law, regardless of the version, is wrong for Michigan. He called for the creation of a task force accompanied by a bipartisan commission to develop local recovery and reinvestment plans and make grants available to reinvest in core services like water, sewer and public safety in the state's largest cities.
Harris used his time on stage to argue in favor of Michigan's emergency manager law, telling how it's helped shore up Benton Harbor's financial picture.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford to expect financially distressed local governments to reverse their declines if they are not making dramatic changes," Harris said. "Nor can we afford to expect conditions to be corrected by those steadfastly adhering to failing methods.
"I submit to you that the consequences of inaction by the state are untenable and that the state's involvement in the affairs of financially distressed local governments is imperative."
Walling talked about his experience as mayor in Flint, noting a judge recently issued a restraining order preventing Flint emergency manager Michael Brown from taking any action with regard to the city of Flint. Walling said he has concerns P.A. 4 creates an uneven playing field where appointed managers have more power than local elected officials.
He said he thinks the state needs to take action to allow local governments more opportunities to raise revenues whether that's through income taxes or sales taxes.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.