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Politics & Government

Local officials, emergency manager continue to struggle for power in Benton Harbor

Benton Harbor City Hall front steps
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor City Hall

Emergency Manager Joe Harris signed two orders this week to discourage city commissioners determined to fight his orders.

Harris ordered the city commissioners to stop passing resolutions as a body shortly after the state passed Public Act 4 of 2011. That act authorized broader powers to emergency managers appointed to schools and municipalities with financial problems.

But most Benton Harbor city commissioners don’t think the state laws authorizing the emergency manager’s powers are legal. So they’ve continued to meet and pass resolutions.

Harris says that’s causing confusion and hurting the community’s welfare. This week he ordered city workers to stop attending commission meetings as city representatives without his written permission.

The exception is the city clerk - who is in charge of taking official meeting minutes. Harris has mandated the clerk write into the record that any action city commission takes is null and void.

“The Emergency Manager hereby directs and orders that the City Clerk shall specifically state in any minutes taken at a meeting of the City Commission, to be placed in the minutes immediately before any ordinance or resolution adopted, amended, enforced or modified, any other action taken or decision made by the City Commission, the following statement: THE FOLLOWING ACTION TAKEN OR DECISION MADE BY THE CITY COMMISSION WAS NOT AUTHORIZED BY THE EMERGENCY MANAGER AND IS NULL AND VOID, AND OF NO FORCE OR EFFECT."

Two city commissioners who generally support Harris have vowed not to attend meetings. But the city charter says any commissioner with 5 unexcused absences automatically loses their seat.

This week Harris essentially excused those two commissioners so they won’t be dismissed.

Under state law, Harris could ask the governor to remove elected officials if they continue to work against his orders.  

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