Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Legal setbacks hit Michigan Gov. Snyder’s push for financial oversight in Flint and Detroit

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan judge on Tuesday restored power to Flint’s mayor and City Council, the latest legal setback for Gov. Rick Snyder and a state law giving state-appointed emergency managers sweeping powers to help struggling cities and schools fix their finances.

The order from Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina says a state review team violated the state’s Open Meetings Act during the process that led to a state-appointed emergency manager in Flint. It’s a case that likely will be monitored in other places where the state has emergency managers, including the cities of Benton Harbor and Pontiac.

The move came the same day another judge in the same county temporarily blocked a potential agreement between the state and cash-strapped Detroit over the same concerns about potential Open Meetings Act violations.

State officials have been negotiating with Mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit City Council on a consent agreement that would provide oversight of the city’s finances but take less power from local leaders than an emergency manager. But on Tuesday Ingham County Circuit Court Judge William Collette ordered the state not to sign any such agreement while he considers a lawsuit concerning the alleged meetings violation. Collette set a hearing in the case for March 29.

In the Flint case, Aquilina’s order expands upon one she made last week temporarily sidelining Flint emergency manager Michael Brown, who Snyder appointed to run the city late last year. Brown’s appointment is now invalidated, along with decisions he has made since becoming emergency manager.

Snyder spokeswoman Geralyn Lasher said the state will file an emergency appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals once it receives Aquilina’s written ruling.

Lasher said the judge’s ruling “does nothing to eliminate the financial emergency in the city of Flint.”

Aquilina’s order comes in a lawsuit brought by the leader of a union that represents some city of Flint employees, saying the Open Meetings Act was violated because a state-appointed review team studying Flint’s finances met in secret last year. That review team’s recommendations led to Brown’s appointment.

A similar Open Meetings Act case temporarily sidelined the state-appointed emergency manager for the Highland Park school district last month. The Highland Park review team was quickly reassembled and met in public, allowing Snyder to reappoint the emergency manager.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday if the same technique would work in the Flint case. The Highland Park case also was in Ingham County Circuit Court, but under jurisdiction of Collette.

Michigan had appointed emergency managers to run financially struggling cities and schools with relatively little legal challenge for two decades. That changed last year, when Snyder and the state Legislature revised the law to give emergency managers power to strip authority from locally elected officials and toss out union contracts.

Snyder said the revised law would allow cities and schools to get back on financial track more quickly. But it’s sparked challenges from critics who say the revised law is undemocratic and boils down to a state-level power grab.

A separate lawsuit claims the state’s revised emergency law is unconstitutional in part because it takes away citizens’ rights to vote for and petition local government on matters of local concern. And a proposal to repeal the law could come before Michigan voters in November, if state election officials decide enough valid voter signatures have been collected to make the ballot.

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