Democracy Usurped in Benton Harbor

Democracy has been usurped in Benton Harbor, Michigan, according to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Last Friday, Maddow reported on attempts by a state-appointed emergency financial manager to sell the economically distressed city’s public radio station on eBay. She said the station was the last place for residents of the predominantly African American city to hear from elected officials who currently have no power to act.

The Facts and the Players

The story is not new. The New York Times Magazine took it up in December, offering an in-depth look at how the situation evolved. In that article, readers learn that Whirlpool has its headquarters in Benton Harbor and that an aggressive redevelopment plan was sidelined by the Great Recession in 2008.

The Times described the EMF, Joseph Harris, as “a 67-year-old African American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache,” and outlined his job and how he got it like this:

“He was first sent to the town in April 2010 under a law that provided the state with limited authority to intervene in the financial affairs of failing cities. His power grew exponentially last spring when Governor [Rick] Snyder and the state’s Republican Legislature passed Public Act 4, which allows emergency managers to renegotiate or terminate contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements, even dissolve local governments (subject to the governor’s approval). They have almost unfettered control over their respective cities. This approach to governing is still in its infancy, but if it proves successful in Benton Harbor and elsewhere, emergency managers could be dispatched to troubled municipalities across the state. Snyder has even made it clear that Detroit is a strong candidate for takeover.”

Maddow isn’t the only person with a national platform to address the situation. The Times reported that the Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Benton Harbor to Selma, circa 1965, “because of the disenfranchisement of its largely black electorate,” and that comedian Stephen Colbert “offered a mock tribute to Harris: ‘I say good for him, because the people of Benton Harbor brought this on themselves. . . . Benton Harbor’s elected officials are incompetent, therefore, by electing them, the voters are incompetent. So they should lose their democracy.'”

Harris isn’t bothered by the attention, according to The Times. “Blissfully free of the checks and balances of democratic governments, he is living the dream of every frustrated city administrator.” He has fired numerous city employees, merged the city’s police and fire departments, and prohibited elected officials from doing anything other than calling meetings to order, recording their minutes, and adjourning them.

Local Voices

The Rev. Antoine Headspeth: "I don't think it's a stretch to say it's a dictatorship."

UrbanFaith talked to three people who are deeply invested in the city. The Rev. Antoine D. Headspeth is senior pastor of Bethel Christian Restoration Center and a lifelong Benton Harbor resident. He said although times have been worse there — particularly when rioting took place in 2003 and when unemployment was at an all-time high in the 1980s — he’s never seen the kind of political instability that exists now.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s dictatorship at its worst in terms of taking the voice away from the people,” said Headspeth.

Because years of “financial irresponsibility” and “incompetence” took a heavy toll on the city, Headspeth believed bringing in the EMF was a good idea, but he didn’t expect Harris to wield unilateral power to the degree he has.

“He can buy and sell as he chooses. He promised that at the beginning of the 2012 year, there would be a balanced budget. That has not happened. He promised that we would have a surplus. That has not happened. And so, when you do things that seem more personal that don’t benefit the city, then I have a problem with that,” said Headspeth.

In particular Headspeth sees Harris’s attempt to sell the radio station license and its equipment on eBay as “a slap in the face of the people” that is motivated by a desire to “shut people down” who were critical of him and his actions.

“To me that is unfair and just not right,” said Headspeth.

Dawn Yarbrough: "Change comes when people are informed."

Dawn Yarbrough also grew up in Benton Harbor, where her father once served as mayor and where both her parents have served as city commissioners. Although she has lived in Milan, Italy, for many years, on visits home three years ago, Yarbrough took note of various programs for youth that she thought deserved attention, like the Boys and Girls Club and glassblowing and martial arts programs. She began videotaping positive aspects of city life.

“They were stories that needed to be told, because lots of people who live here don’t realize what’s going on. They don’t the see the good things, because when you’re involved in your everyday life, you just hear the big picture,” said Yarbrough.

The local PBS affiliate, WNIT, has agreed to air her eight-part video series, Harbor Lights TV, and she is currently fundraising to make that happen.

“The objective is actually to help effect change. Change comes when people are informed about what exists, when they know there are programs that can help them or their children, and when they are encouraged to come out and participate in those programs,” said Yarbrough.

She declined to discuss the city’s problems, other than to say, “It is clear that our city needs assistance. If I am sick, then I am going to find a good doctor and I’m going to go to him and do my part in working with him to get well. … I hope that both sides: the emergency financial manager as well as the people who need to … find a spirit of collaboration so that we can all do what is best for our city and our citizens.”

The Rev. Brian Bennett: "A lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically."

The Rev. Brian Bennett has lived in Benton Harbor since 2005. He is pastor of Overflow Church and executive director of the Overflow Christian Community Development Assocation. Bennett thinks the attention Benton Harbor is receiving is “well-deserved, given the historic nature of the transformation that’s happening.”

“There are very few places where the long-standing residents of the community have a voice any longer,” said Bennett. “I think large portions of the community that used to have a voice just no longer do, or the voice that they had has been compromised by being a part of the change. As a result, I think [the attempted radio station sale] is a striking metaphor.”

“The EMF was probably within his rights legally with the sweeping power he’s been given, but I don’t think that what he did was right. There is a difference,” he said. “Some of what is being felt here is, ‘Yes, there needs to be change, but how we’re getting there is happening with such audacity. The word that is coming to mind is velocity. It is happening so quickly.”

Bennett sees broken relationships as the heart of the problem in Benton Harbor and said the EMF’s actions are an example of that.

“When you look racially and economically at our area, a lot of it ties back to polarization racially and economically,” he said. “Our ministry is focused on unifying and being a place for all people and building bridges. That’s happening, but it takes time.”

The ministry focus at Headspeth’s church is also community building. “We believe if we build a strong community, we’ll build a stronger church and ultimately we’ll build stronger people,” Headspeth said. “I know the hearts and the passion of the constituents of the city of Benton Harbor and the people are not going to bow out easily.”

What do you think?

Is it undemocratic for states to unilaterally exercise power over “failing” cities?

This Week’s Pendulum




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