Whenever we see a law or public policy that affects people who the majority perceives to be on the edge of society, i.e., minorities, the impoverished and/or imprisoned, we should sit up and pay very careful attention. Why? These populations are often the testing ground for implementing policies and laws that erode our civil liberties. Often the policies and laws tested in this manner are applicable anywhere and can have far-reaching impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.
With the implementation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) financial martial law, what is unfolding in Benton Harbor, Mich. is nothing but corporate greed, government overreach, racism, voter disenfranchisement, and erosion of civil rights, constitutional rights and democratic rule.
What is particularly concerning is that Gov. Snyder’s financial martial law is one of those egregious, far-right laws that if one Republican governor gets such a bill passed and signed, other Republican governors will follow suit.
When Gov. Snyder’s financial martial law bill was first introduced (sponsored by first-time State Rep. Al Pscholka (R-79th Dist.), on the surface the bill appeared to be yet another attack on unions and collective bargaining rights. In reality, the law (effective on March 16) goes far beyond union-busting and demolishes democracy as we know it.
For all practical purposes, the law gives Governor Snyder the power to rule Michigan towns and cities by decree, with no legislative oversight and without the consent of municipal residents. Under the law, the governor can determine that a particular city or town is in a condition of financial distress. Making that determination empowers the governor to appoint an emergency manager for the town, answerable only to the governor. This envoy of the governor has the power to unilaterally dismiss any democratically elected official of the town; close or reorganize schools; set school curricula; alter or abolish government contracts and collective bargaining agreements; control taxes and spending at will; and even legally dissolve the town or city, wiping it out of existence entirely. Without elections or any sort of opposition — from an elected city council, for example — of any kind. [....]
Last week, Gov. Snyder used his new law for the first time on Benton Harbor (a predominantly black town) that is home to Jean Klock Park which consists of 90 acres of “globally rare natural resources” along the town’s waterfront.
As of the last census, Benton Harbor has a population of 10,038 that is 92.40 percent black and a median income of $17,471. [….] Next door is the town of St. Joseph, which is 90.31 percent white with a population of 8,789 (2000 Census) and a median income of $37,032. Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, while quite different in their demographics, are known locally as the “Twin Cities.”
Both towns have worked on a project, Harbor Shores, that uses their harbors and beautiful beaches to build sound and sustainable economies, while preserving the natural beauty of the shoreline. The development includes a world-class golf course and residential community surrounded by beaches, natural walking trails and other outdoor amenities. The Harbor Shores Development website, which focuses primarily on activities in the predominantly black city of Benton Harbor, states that:
“Harbor Shores is a 530-acre, mixed use development spanning parts of Benton Harbor, St. Joseph, and Benton Charter Township. It has been initiated to revitalize the community while protecting its natural beauty. Plans call for residential units, commercial space, marinas, up to two hotels, a conference center, an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, the Midwest’s first Nicklaus Signature Golf Academy, 83 acres of new parks, green space and public waterfront access points as well as walking and bike trails along with various other amenities. … This development is a cooperative effort between Cornerstone Alliance, Whirlpool Foundation, the cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Benton Charter Township, Berrien County, the state of Michigan and others.”[....]
A portion of Benton Harbor’s waterfront, which is part of Jean Klock Park, is being leased as part of the Harbor Shores development. The video clip features what has been accomplished so far for the upscale residential community and world-class golf course.
This seems like a win/win situation for Benton Harbor and St. Joseph; especially with the 2012 and 2014 PGA Senior Championships being held at The Golf Club at Harbor Shores. No doubt the revenue, job growth and worldwide exposure will be a boon for both cities. Yet, Gov. Snyder declared Benton Harbor a city in “economic distress” under the new financial martial law and replaced the city’s elected officials – the mayor, the city council, etc. – by appointing an Emergency Financial Manager, Joseph Harris, who reports directly to the him.
As mentioned above, Joseph Harris, in his role as Benton Harbor’s Emergency Financial Manager, has the power to:
[U]nilaterally dismiss any democratically elected official of the town; close or reorganize schools; set school curricula; alter or abolish government contracts and collective bargaining agreements; control taxes and spending at will; and even legally dissolve the town or city, wiping it out of existence entirely. Without elections or any sort of opposition — from an elected city council, for example — of any kind. [....]
There’s something very wrong here. The collaborative effort between Benton Harbor, St. Joseph and others did not happen overnight. This venture was years in the making. So why, at what appears to be the 11th hour, has Gov. Snyder pulled the rug out from under Benton Harbor?
There’s various scenarios of why this is happening; some substantiated and some not. One theory is that a world-class golf course’s image doesn’t lend itself to a town like Benton Harbor which is 92.40 percent black (St. Joseph’s is equally white). Another theory is that perhaps certain individuals with a stake in Harbor Shores would like more than a “parcel” of Jean Klock’s Park, which is considered to be the best area of both towns. Further, the land is being leased from Benton Harbor.
If the latter scenario is true, acquiring Jean Klock Park for potentially private usage may not be an easy task – at least it may not have been before the implementation of Gov. Snyder’s financial martial law.
“In 1917, John and Carrie Klock deeded a half mile of lake Michigan frontage to the City of Benton Harbor Michigan in memory of their deceased daughter Jean. Their gift consisted of 90 acres of globally rare natural resources that included Great Lakes Dunes, a Great Lakes Marsh and interdunal wetlands. The donated land was named Jean Klock Park … John Klock stipulated that, “It is our wish that the lakefront always be preserved in its natural state and be a playground for the children and a bathing beach for all the people.” [….]
Clearly, the Klocks did not want the land to become a private beach, accessible to members only. It’s also clear that residents of Benton Harbor with a median income of $17,471 may not be ready (or able) to pay private golf course membership fees. Its rumored that Harbor Shores Golf Club’s annual membership fee is $5000.
What if those with a stake in Harbor Shores would like to get around the Klock’s deed stipulation? Joseph Harris has the power to “alter or abolish government contracts and collective bargaining agreements.” What’s to stop him or State Rep. Al Pscholka (R) who sponsored the law from amending it to expand Harris’ ability to alter or abolish any type of contract or land and deed agreements? Nothing. There is no longer any democratic rule in Benton Harbor; the elected officials have been stripped of their power to govern.
In addition, the Benton Harbor’s emergency financial manager also has the power to dissolve the city altogether. Either scenario would open the way for Harbor Shores to include all of Jean Klock Park without any stipulation to keep the beaches open to the general public.
In sorting out conspiracy fact from fiction, I generally follow the money. In this case, I tried to follow the money, the politics and the ideology (or racism) and how it all connects with the financial martial law. Two people stand out (besides Michigan’s misguided governor), Benton Harbor’s first-time State Rep. Al Pscholka and its EFM Joseph Harris.
Pscholka, who sponsored the financial martial law, has ties to Benton Harbor and the land developer of Harbor Shores, Whirlpool, as well as some other nonprofit organizations that make up the collaborative to revitalize Benton Harbor. As noted in his online bio, Pscholka “was the district director for U.S. Congressman Fred Upton [Whirlpool heir]. He also is a former vice president of Cornerstone Alliance [responsible for building Harbor Shores].” Pscholka also sat on the Board of Directors for a nonprofit involved in the Harbor Shores development. Add to the mix Pscholka represents Benton Harbor before Michigan’s legislative body, I’d be curious to hear how he thinks he has no conflict of interest in this matter.
Another person of interest is Joseph Harris. His immediate action as Benton Harbor’s EFM was to “fire a number of people on both the Planning Commission and the Brownfield Development Commission in Benton Harbor and replace them with people he hand-picked. These two commissions are … intimately involved in decision-making about real estate development in Benton Harbor. They … decide who gets permits, what developments will look like and who gets to pick the ripe plums present in Benton Harbor. And they are now staffed largely by people chosen by the Czar of Benton Harbor [Joseph Harris].” [….] On April 19, The Root reported that “Harris has issued an order stripping all city boards and commissions their authority to take any action.Most recently, Harris laid off all of Benton Harbor’s elected officials.”
There is also speculation that Whirlpool played a hand in getting Benton Harbor to be considered in “financial distress” paving the way for Gov. Snyder to impose financial martial law. “[I]n an effort to recycle some old manufacturing land on the shores of Lake Michigan, a brownfield … [Whirlpool] decided to build a $500 million golf course and residential development, Harbor Shores, on its land, part of which would heavily impact Jean Klock Park. Note that Whirlpool pulled its last manufacturing out of Benton Harbor in March of this year, driving the final economic stake into the heart of this otherwise depressed area. [….]
Is there any smoke in a scenario that involves an upscale residential new development on a waterfront with a world-class golf course that shares pristine beaches with a town next door that is predominantly black and poor, which, by the way houses the crown jewel of the harbor area? There’s enough smoke here to choke a horse followed by lots of fire.
The irony here is that the rise of the new Republican far-right takes its ideology and its name, the Tea Party, from the tea party held in Boston on “December 1773, when about sixty men, disguised as [Native Americans] Indians, boarded two vessels laden with tea, tore open the hatches, and threw 340 chests overboard, as a protest against the levy of taxes without the consent of the people.” [….]
Equally ironic is that Republicans consistently claim that president Obama and his administration are causing people from other countries to demolish our laws and replace them with their own (Sharia law). This was no act of another country’s law being forced on Benton Harbor. This was conjured up and forced upon the people of Benton Harbor by our fellow American citizens.
This is serious. I believe that we have yet to see the full impact of Gov. Snyder’s law. Fortunately, the people of Michigan are recalling their governor. They should consider the same of the sponsor of financial martial law, Rep. Pscholka. Get rid of it for Michigan and our country and fight back against it before other Republican governors start to do likewise.