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Some residents of Benton Harbor, Mich., today heeded Rev. Jesse Jackson’s call to protest against a new law that grants the city’s state-appointed emergency manager broad authority over municipal finances.
In Benton Harbor – one of only four local entities under state oversight, so far – the emergency manager recently used his expanded authority to remove all decision-making power from Benton Harbor’s elected officials.The move garnered national media attention and prompted a visit from Jackson this week . The civil rights leader accused the state of stripping Benton Harbor of its democratic rights, noting that the nearly half of the city’s majority-black population of 10,000 lives below the poverty line. In a Chicago Sun Times op-ed, Jackson called for an “uprising” in Benton Harbor.
As the New York Times points out today, however, Benton Harbor’s finances are indeed a mess – the result of mismanagement, poor accounting and too much spending. State officials argue an emergency manager is needed to remedy the dire situation and help the city avoid bankruptcy.
But critics say the law – which gives emergency managers power to nullify employee contracts – aims to weaken union power and cut public worker benefits.
The issue has divided Benton Harbor. Jeremy Connell, who leads the firefighters’ union, said he is anxious about negotiations for a new contract. He dislikes some of Mr. Harris’s plans (the combined police-fire services could be unsafe, he says). “But then I think, what choice do we have?” Mr. Connell said.
Others, bitter after years of broken political promises, say they welcome Mr. Harris — anyone, really. “We need help,” said Maurice Graham, a resident.