From a Benton Harbor Resident

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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16 Responses

  1. Avatar Shygetz
    Ignored
    says:

    “As we start to operate under the new law we’ll get a chance to see if this is really all that undemocratic, but to be frank, the current crop of commissioners has been so corrupt and have mismanaged affairs for so long I hardly see what’s going on now as making things any worse.”

    While I’m glad that Mike tentatively approves of undermining the power of the local elected government, he never mentions why a local government that is so obviously incompetent and corrupt was never simply voted out of office. And, more importantly, how can one support the appointment of an unelected pseudo-dictator and still support representative democracy over nominally benevolent dictatorships?

    Or, in short, if Congress were to empower the President to replace the governor of Michigan with an unelected czar to essentially dissolve teh state government indefinitely, would they receive the same tentative support because the current elected government is obviously not working?Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Shygetz
      Ignored
      says:

      These are good points all around, I think, and I share your concern.

      The more I read about the story, the more the golf course recedes into the background. It looks like a choice between elected-but-corrupt and unelected-but-we’re-told-cross-our-hearts-honest.

      Not an appetizing choice.Report

    • Avatar Mike in reply to Shygetz
      Ignored
      says:

      “…he never mentions why a local government that is so obviously incompetent and corrupt was never simply voted out of office.”

      I think it’s easier for voters to just vote for a familiar name or an incumbent. Voters aren’t rational all the time, even when they disagree with the results of the current administration. How often do you hear people say how they are not in favor of the way the state/national government is operating but proceed to vote in the same six term senator, representative, etc.?

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought city governments here in Michigan were chartered or incorporated through the state goverment. Does that not give the state any power to correct a problem in one of those chartered/incorporated cities? I just don’t see this situation as a dictatorship at all. Maybe I secretly love tyranny in my city.

      But, as Jason said above me, you make many good points.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Mike
        Ignored
        says:

        There was a town near where I grew up that had a remarkably corrupt municipal structure. Finally, a slate of reformers actually got elected, including a new mayor. It lasted less than a couple of years before the PTB were able to find a pretense for a majority of city council to be removed or recalled, and once the mayor lost his council majority, he was promptly impeached. Not that they had been able to do much, because the entire city apparatus had been put in place by their predecessors.

        It’s really, really difficult to get people interested in local elections enough for there to be sustained, local change.

        None of this is to say that I have much of an opinion on what’s going on in Michigan. My instinct is to say “it stinks”, but I really don’t have familiarity with the situation. All I can say for sure is that I would oppose such a thing happening in my town. But that’s because our local officials aren’t horrible. The whole thing makes me queasy.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Shygetz
      Ignored
      says:

      While I’m glad that Mike tentatively approves of undermining the power of the local elected government, he never mentions why a local government that is so obviously incompetent and corrupt was never simply voted out of office.

      There is no such thing as “simply” voting a local government – or any government – out of office. This is almost especially true on the local level where machine politics typically run rampant and where media coverage of the candidates barely exists at all.

      In order for voters to vote out corrupt officials, enough of those voters need to know about that corruption. Before the financial poop hits the fan, finding out about this requires a whistleblower, and good luck finding a whistleblower in a relatively small corrupt local government where even the low-level staffers have been friends with the mayor since childhood and owe their jobs to that friendship.

      Then, having discovered the corruption, you need to get another candidate on the ballot. That may well be an uphill battle, especially in a machine-dominated town or county, and doubly so if the machine controls access to the primary or doesn’t have primaries at all.

      Next, you need to get enough votes for your candidate. If it’s a machine-dominated town, there is close to zero chance of this happening in a general election, assuming a partisan ballot, so your only shot really is in the primaries. You will be outfunded by a large margin unless you’re independently wealthy – there will be powerful interests that have been benefiting from that corruption who will not want it to end. You will have to find a way to introduce yourself to voters without any meaningful media attention; the incumbents will not. You will have to then motivate a large number of those voters to get to the polls. If the poop has not yet hit the fan, this will be extremely difficult – most people in practice view local elections as little more important than the average student views the election for Student Body President (see, e.g., the 2005 NC State election…..you won’t regret it, I assure you). Since they won’t have seen the corruption much covered in the media, they probably won’t believe your tales all that much or, if they do, won’t view your tale as having a large enough effect on them personally to make it worthwhile for them to lug their butts to the polling station. If you get 25% turnout from your potential support base, you’ll be ahead of the game.

      By contrast, the machine’s support base will get close to 100% turnout. This will be the people whose jobs directly depend on the corruption, and the friends, family, and neighbors of the people whose jobs directly depend on the corruption, none of whom will believe the allegations for a second.

      None of this in any way justifies the extent of the state’s power grab here. The poop has hit the fan and so the dynamic above is greatly lessened, if not eliminated altogether. The new legislation seems to impose from above an entirely new system of government without at least first obtaining the consent of the people who will bear the brunt of the action and in whose behalf the state claims to be acting. Mike seems to suggest that consent would be given if asked, but it should be asked nonetheless.

      But let us not pretend that local government is a democratic ideal, either.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Mark Thompson
        Ignored
        says:

        Mr. Thompson, I find your argument quite persuasive why localities aren’t just “little states” and why they shouldn’t be treated as such.

        The state level is the proper level of devolvement of power according to our federal scheme: responsible for the good health and conduct of its localities, and sovereign enough to fight the encroachments of Leviathan. [The latter in theory at least.]

        Sec. 3 of the Michigan law makes at least an arguable case that the state has a compelling interest in the solvency of localities:

        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. Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mark Thompson
        Ignored
        says:

        Everything Mark said here. Absolutely.

        Also what Lyle said below. Precisely.Report

  2. Avatar Lyle
    Ignored
    says:

    For other examples of such municipalities see Bell Ca, where the folks that ran the town profited from running it. The problem is that in a lot of smaller towns in large areas there is almost no media coverage of anything but the central city. For example Benton Harbor is part of the South Bend/Elkart In tv market, and also gets Chicago Tv, so how much do you suppose the Tv stations cover politics there. Its just like school board elections in Tx which are held on different days than major elections. So many (myself included) forget to vote. As I recall it was that way in Bell where the folks in power had enough friends to keep them elected due to lack of other participation. It is the basic problem that a small town in a metro area can sort of get away with a lot before the media decides to come in and expose goings on ala the LA Times and Bell.
    It is sort of like living in Houston and voting on the 20 page judicial ballot without knowing anything about the candidates. (The newspaper might provide an extra section one sunday to cover them).

    I just checked and in MI there are 5700 township offices up for election as well as for 533 cities and 212 villages. Add in counties and special districts and there is already a complaint about bed sheet ballots, (which moving to mail voting only could fix but …)Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Lyle
      Ignored
      says:

      Well, that’s more a complaint about the fact we have entirely too many elected officials in America and I actually think it’s part of the reason why our voting rates lag behind the rest of the First World.

      Most of the local offices up for election could easily be appointed without much change. Sheriffs, judges, coroners, and the like shouldn’t be elected officials.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jesse Ewiak
        Ignored
        says:

        Don’t know if I agree with that. I like the notion that those whose judgement determines the application of the law are subject to public recall.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Jesse Ewiak
        Ignored
        says:

        Blame the Jacksonian revolution for this, in the early days many more offices were appointive, but during the 1820s and 1830s it was felt that the people would do a better job selecting the office holders than the governor.
        Anyway I think we need to move nationwide like Oregon has done and do mail in only ballots. (Also doable in Ca) , At least in Tx you have excuseless early voting for 2 weeks before the election. But mail voting would allow one to consider a bit more.Report

  3. Avatar Member548
    Ignored
    says:

    “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought city governments here in Michigan were chartered or incorporated through the state goverment. ”

    This. If all of the power granted to a city government is derived from the state, and such is spelled out in the state constitution, then if the state has a law allowing them to remove said city governments power and replace it with what ever the law spells out then there is nothing wrong with that.

    The US Constitution has no clause, or allusion that a states power is derived from the Federal governments power so they can’t dissolve a state government.

    This is the United States of America after all, but Michigan isn’t the United Cities of Michigan.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to Member548
      Ignored
      says:

      Further to note that a state must approve one of its subdivisions filing chapter 9 bk, with the federal system. Since Gov Grantholm refused this for Hamtramck, one must assume that if Benton Harbor had asked they would have been turned down, but probably did not bother to ask. The state has provided a resolution system to fix the finances of a subdivision, in place of the chapter 9 proceeding. Note that in a chapter 9 labor agreements can be done away with and the subdivision can renegotiate pension and other arrangements in even if not in compliance with state law.
      So its not even clear if the emergency financial manager has much more control than the trustee in a chapter 9 might have.Report

      • Avatar Barry in reply to Lyle
        Ignored
        says:

        Yes, one will certainly ‘renegotiate’ pension agreements. All the bond holders will get paid 100%, since return on money loaned, not labor employed, is the guiding principle. The sale of real assets are bottom dollar value will continue unabated. This is principles of the new tea party, not to be confused with the one from 1773.Report

        • Avatar Lyle in reply to Barry
          Ignored
          says:

          Which is exactly how a chapter 9 BK would work also. Liquidate assets etc. Labour in a corp bankruptcy in general has a lower priority than secured debt holders (ch 11 and 7). Note that many corp retirees had their pensions shoved into the PBGC and cut also. Of course you could try Shays rebellion again, but that was a failure and brought on the current consitituion which was and is designed to favor the creditor class. After all back then if you did not have debt free property you could not even vote (if male women could not vote period).Report

  4. Avatar Member548
    Ignored
    says:

    “bond holders will get paid 100%”

    Heh, not if your bond said General Motors on it.Report

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