Lansing Michigan's emergency managers may lose superpowers Petition may suspend Public Act 4 and put it on November ballot

By Corey Williams

and Tim Martin

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- State-appointed emergency managers such as Louis Schimmel, assigned to save the city of Pontiac from financial peril, are armed with superpowers that enable them to leap city councils and union contracts in a single bound.

That soon could change. A petition drive aimed at repealing a 2011 Michigan law that gave state-appointed managers their sweeping authority could serve as kryptonite, nullifying the enhanced powers they claim are crucial. State election officials likely will decide within two months whether opponents of the emergency manager law have gathered enough valid voter signatures to temporarily suspend the measure and put it before voters for a final verdict in the November election.

If Public Act 4 is suspended, emergency managers would no longer have the ability to unilaterally strip locally elected leaders of their power or toss out union contracts. Barring court decisions or further action by the state Legislature, it appears Michigan's emergency manager law would at a minimum revert to Public Act 72 of 1990 -- leaving the state-appointed officials on the job but with fewer weapons to battle financial crises.

The result: It likely would take emergency managers longer to fix the financial problems facing the cities and schools they're assigned to run.

"There were a lot of things I could not do that were frustrating under Act 72," said Schimmel, who served as emergency financial manager in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck from 2000 to 2006 before becoming Pontiac's emergency manager last year.

"The difference is you don't have as many powers," Schimmel said. "The main one is you can't deal with the labor contracts under the old act like the new one."

Schimmel, appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to take over as Pontiac's emergency manager in September, said he was able to resolve issues with labor contracts in his first four months on the job. He also shook up Pontiac's city hall in November, firing the city clerk, attorney and director of public works as he moved to put together his own team.

The Snyder administration expects that all previous decisions and agreements crafted by Schimmel and the state's other emergency managers -- also operating in Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Flint and school districts in Detroit and Highland Park -- would remain in place if Public Act 4 is suspended. But they'd have diminished powers moving forward, including within areas that might need future state intervention. Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature are looking at possible contingency plans if the emergency manager law is suspended, but it's not clear what measures, if any, might be attempted.

The goal would be a temporary measure to leave some aspects within Public Act 4 in force until voters cast the final verdict in November, said Ari Adler, a spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican from Marshall.

"All the voters in Michigan get to have their voices heard in November," Adler said. "But the concept behind a temporary law would be that we don't want chaos to ensue in the meantime."

Supporters of Public Act 4 say that in cases where an emergency manager is needed, the state-appointed official can get in, get the job done and get out much faster than before, turning power back over to local leaders.

There also are features of Public Act 4 that supporters say can help avoid the appointment of an emergency manager in some cases. The state can get involved more quickly to send in review teams to analyze a troubled entity's finances. That sometimes may lead to consent agreements with local leaders that leave them in charge of their communities and schools.

The cities of Detroit and Inkster and the Muskegon Heights Public Schools are among those involved in the review team process right now.

Critics of Public Act 4 say struggling cities and schools would be better off without the law. Opponents, including some labor unions and community groups in a coalition called Stand Up for Democracy, have dubbed it the "dictator" law -- calling it an unconstitutional power grab that undermines democracy.

Stand Up for Democracy says it turned in more than 226,000 voter signatures last week. If state election officials decide that at least roughly 161,300 of the signatures are from valid voters, the law would be placed on hold while awaiting the December vote.

The Snyder administration and Attorney General Bill Schuette say that a suspension of the law would return Michigan's emergency manager law to its previous form, leaving the state-appointed officials on the job with less power. But Greg Bowens, a Stand Up for Democracy spokesman, said that emergency managers should move to the sidelines if the law is suspended.

"(The emergency managers) for all practical purposes should pack their bags and head home, or go on vacation or whatever until people get an opportunity to vote on it," Bowens said. "All the powers would rest with the democratically elected government."

Published: Wed, Mar 7, 2012