Politicians and national media have been parachuting into Benton Harbor lately. They’re talking about the city’s emergency manager, Joe Harris. Harris was the first emergency manager in Michigan to exercise broad new powers under a state law passed last month, essentially removing power from elected city officials.
This week I sat down with many of those officials and Benton Harbor residents to hear what they think of the situation.
Ronnie White Low cracks the windows in his black Ford Crown Victoria. He asks permission to light a cigarette from a pack of Pall Malls before unloading his story.
He was a city planning commissioner, but Benton Harbor’s emergency manager replaced White Low and other city officials. He stripped most powers from elected city commissioners and the mayor.
“I found out through my niece. She called me Sunday before last. She said ‘did you know you were taken off of planning commission?"
Harris also stripped most powers from elected city commissioners and the mayor. White Low isn’t happy about the state taking over Benton Harbor. But he's the first of many residents who say the city has so many problems it’s hard to know where to begin to fix any of them.
Local government 'totally dysfunctional'
City Commissioner Bryan Joseph's powers are mostly gone now, too. But he supports the state’s new law that gives broader powers to emergency managers.
“From my perspective, the only way we can turn this city around is having an emergency manager in place."
Joseph says Benton Harbor’s city government is totally dysfunctional.
“The name calling, the back-biting and people can’t separate the business from the personal, and that is what has been going on in Benton Harbor for decades."
Joseph and others say that’s because commissioners disagree about what’s best for Benton Harbor.
Take Whirlpool as an example. The manufacturing giant came up in every conversation I had. People are either with Whirlpool, because of the economic investment it brings. Or, people are against Whirlpool – a super-successful company they say is taking advantage of a city that’s desperate for cash and jobs.
Former Planning Commissioner Ronnie White Low cracks a sarcastic smile when I ask about Whirlpool.
“There’s nothing wrong with Whirlpool other than the fact that Whirlpool found some idiots that are destroying our city and our way of life," White Low says. And that’s our – going back to us as the residents. That’s our fault.”
White Low used to be a salesman. A few years ago he says he went back to his roots, going door-to-door telling residents about a number of issues he says were suspicious at city hall. But he says people never responded.
Rev. Edward Pinkney is president of Benton Harbor’s NAACP chapter and a longtime activist against city authority and development plans. Before now, he says, not too many people in the city cared about getting involved.
“It didn’t affect them until now, when we’re in the position that we’re in today, you see, and that’s where the problem is," Pinkney says. "It didn’t affect them until we got into this position. Now everything that’s happened – they’re angry. They don’t know what to do."
Political issue? Or simple math problem?
Pinkney is rallying hard against the city’s emergency manager. He knows the city’s finances need to be fixed, but he says emergency manager Joe Harris doesn’t have the residents' best interest in mind.
He led a march through the city recently. His picket sign declared “Joe Harris is a dictator.”
Elizabeth Frost watches the 200 or so protestors march by her small coffee shop.
Frost opened the Phoenix two years ago after moving to Benton Harbor from South Carolina. Frost says she’s glad to give the emergency manager a chance to turn things around.
“I think we needed somebody who wasn’t a part of all this. Who wasn’t so deeply ingrained, who could look at it objectively."
Frost looks at the current situation mostly as a math problem.
“Its simple, right? Get us out of debt," Frost says. "Yeah a bunch of people’s feet are going to get stepped on and feelings hurt and egos bruised and all of that. But just get us out of debt."
Benton Harbor’s emergency manager says he’ll be able to get the city out of deficit spending as soon as next year.
Mayor Wilce Cook says the main problem in Benton Harbor is a lack of good jobs and a declining tax base.
"I tried to do my job," Cook says. "But when you only have but one vote, it’s very difficult. We come to office with different ideas, different backgrounds and we have different agendas."
Cook says he wishes the state would offer elected city officials the same powers given recently to emergency managers.
“Those municipalities could clean up their own mess,” Cook says.
He called Republicans who pushed for the measure “rogue Republicans”. He says the EM powers go against the idea of smaller government and local control.