Democracy versus Bottom Line Mentality

By Kim Hunter

The idea of emergency managers comes from a corporate mentality that refuses to engage voters for solutions to problems that directly affect their lives, a mentality that values(supposedly) balanced budgets over your right to vote. That mentality has wreaked havoc on the lives of Detroit pensioners, devastated an already-challenged Detroit school system and has now resulted in Flint children drinking lead-contaminated water. The effects of lead poisoning in children are irreversible. That will be part of the legacy of Governor Snyder, who comes out of the corporate world, denying basic rights to residents in general and voters in particular.

Earlier this year, the appointment of Darnell Earley as the fourth Detroit Public Schools (DPS) emergency manager caused me to reflect on the foibles of his predecessors. Besides the outright attack on voters’ rights they represented, the unelected “leaders” had increased the schools’ debt – which is exactly the opposite of what they were installed to do and had employed questionable practices in the process.

Since that time, other serious issues have emerged that have raised troubling questions about the judgment and culpability of at least two of the former emergency managers as well as the current Snyder appointee.

Recently uncovered court documents reveal that then DPS Board President Lamar Lemmons warned both Emergency Managers Robert Bobb and his successor Roy Roberts that then Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh might have been having inappropriate relations with a minor. Detroit School Board members have actually filed a complaint with the US Justice Department that alleges Snyder appointees ignored warnings about what they saw as Pugh’s inappropriate behavior. The family of the minor in question also has a suit against Pugh. So, in addition to putting the schools deeper in debt, Bobb and Roberts may have ignored warnings that left a minor at risk.

The current DPS Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley was brought in from his tenure as Flint’s unelected leader. Of course Flint has been in the news of late because of concerns over people in general and children in particular being poisoned with lead in the drinking water. While he was Flint’s Emergency Manager, Earley made the decision that led to Flint’s drinking water being contaminated. He was the one that demanded the city switch from using Detroit water to using water from the incredibly polluted Flint River supposedly as a cost-saving measure.

That costs savings was debatable early on. Now, Snyder and company are trying to sock Flint taxpayers with a $2 million bill to switch back to safe, clean water from Detroit, in short, to help pay for his appointee’s screw-up.

Residents complained for months about skin rashes and foul smells coming from their tap water. They were ignored. So not only were their voting rights gone, their petition to be heard on issues of utmost safety and health was also ignored.

Let’s be clear, emergency managers would be unconstitutional and wrong even if the DPS budget was fixed and families were flooding back into the schools. It would be wrong even if Flint River water turned out to have healing properties. There are ways to make budgets and public services work, to give families functioning schools and affordable water without trampling on their voting rights. Justice and fairness have to be at the core of such solutions. There can be no justice or fairness when the community and the community’s basic rights and concerns are ignored. We cannot get fairness and justice with a corporate, top-down, money-trumps-all-approach. We have to commit to solutions that include even deeper public engagement.

Indeed, if anything, we have learned that the corporate approach to community challenges fails on all fronts. When we let money trump democracy, we lose both. In the case of Flint, depriving voters of their rights has cost families much more than money.