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More than eight months have passed since new legislation granted new powers to emergency managers in Michigan's most fiscally troubled municipalities and school districts. And yet the controversies surrounding emergency managers continue to grow.
Pontiac has appointed its third emergency manager in two years, following widespread complaints about lack of transparency in the previous manager's administration. Several managers are pushing through long-term changes, such as privatizing public assets and services, often without strong support from the community.
With more municipalities and school districts beginning the review process that could lead to the appointment of an emergency manager -- including Flint and Detroit -- it's crucial to avoid harmful abuses and scandal in the future.
Emergency managers are not the only kind of local government officials to run into trouble. Dysfunction or corruption has contributed to many of the financial problems for struggling communities. But there is a key difference: Unlike traditional local leaders, emergency managers are not elected. Since they are not democratically accountable, emergency managers must be held to standards of accountability and transparency that are at least as high as what is required of traditional local government.
To prevent abuses of power by emergency managers, the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan is urging members of Michigan's state Senate and House to adopt protections that follow these basic principles:
• Conflict-of-interest rules must be strictly enforced in cases involving emergency managers.
• The appointment of emergency managers must be transparent, so citizens can be confident they are chosen based on their credentials and experience rather than politics.
• Emergency managers should follow freedom-of-information rules and requirements to openly disclose spending information at least as faithfully as would other elected leaders.
• Potential privatization of public assets and services in municipalities must be held to the highest standards of transparency and public accountability.
• Emergency managers must provide forums for meaningful public input on important decisions and evaluate their own performance against measurable goals.
In Pontiac, a requirement for the emergency manager to provide public forums on important decisions would have alleviated public frustration over the inability to weigh in on the emergency manager's decisions, which plagued the previous manager and continue under the new one.
The overtly partisan debate over the powers of emergency managers in Michigan has masked the real task at hand: getting Michigan's local governments and school districts back on the financial straight-and-narrow without sacrificing transparency, or the ability of citizens to hold emergency managers accountable for the results of their decisions.
By adopting these basic protections, Michigan's Legislature can accomplish both aims.
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