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Benton Harbor

Mercedes Mejia

The City of Benton Harbor says the beach season at Jean Klock Park was a success this year.

But some residents are upset that 22 acres of park land is now used by Harbor Shores Golf Course (see slideshow above to get a sense of how it looks).

The City of Benton Harbor says the golf course has created jobs and provides revenue for the city, but some people argue it’s not enough.

Julie Wiess is with Protect Jean Klock Park.

 “It’s gone through with very little scrutiny actually, of the numbers that have been presented as far as job creation, as far as the amount of development or revenue that will be generated from this development and it’s all pie in the sky and no one has really taken a sharp pencil and figured whether this is realistic," said Wiess.

Tomorrow at 1:30 p.m., a group of Benton Harbor residents will argue in federal appeals court that the golf course developers should not have been given permits they received to build on park land.

Harbor Shores Development is already operating the championship golf course; the opponents say the environmental permits allowing the development were not fair.

Flickr

The legislative sponsor of the state’s six-month-old emergency manager law says it has cleared the way for the decisive actions needed to help severely stressed cities.

State Representative Al Psholka’s district includes the city of Benton Harbor.

He says Benton Harbor’s emergency manager did not have the authority he needed to fix the city’s finances before the new law took effect in March.

 “We’ve seen some rapid progress in Benton Harbor. There's challenges there, but if you look at the budget, the budget is balanced. There is a projected surplus next year of $400,000. Yes, they had to make some tough choices, but Benton Harbor is in a much better position: a position to go back to local control with a balanced budget," said Psholka.

Psholka was on the Michigan Public TV show “Off the Record.”

Opponents of the law say it robs citizens in takeover communities of their right to choose their local officials.

Organizers of a petition drive say they are close to collecting enough signatures to put a challenge to the emergency manager law the ballot.

A referendum on the law requires opponents to gather more than 161,000 signatures.

Amy Kerr Hardin is with the “Stand Up for Democracy,” the coalition trying to repeal the law. She says the state-appointed emergency managers are given too much power.

 "It takes away our elected officials. It’s crazy the stuff an emergency manager can do just by fiat," said Hardin. "They don’t have to ask any public opinion, and they don’t have to tell the public until after the fact – when they’ve done whatever it is they’ve done."

 Hardin says the campaign expects to turn in sufficient signatures by the end of October. That would put the question on the February 2012 ballot.

It would also suspend the law until the election.

The cities of Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac and the Detroit school district are being run by emergency managers.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor’s Emergency Manager says the city will be able to break even this budget year. Last year the city ran more than a million dollar deficit.

Emergency Manger Joe Harris says this year the city could run a $400,000 surplus.

“We’ve turned the corner. You don’t have to keep cutting if you have positive cash flow. Now we just need to expend or invest our money wisely.”

Most of those attending seemed relieved at the news. But following years of mismanagement, many residents remain skeptical.

Benton Harbor City Hall front steps
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

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

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

One of the four petitions Benton Harbor City Commissioner Dennis Knowles filed to recall State Rep. Al Pscholka (R-St. Joseph) was approved by Berrien County election officials this morning.

Knowles needs to collect 6,718 valid signatures in Pscholka's district before the November 18th deadline. But the signatures are only valid for 90 days, so he has until that deadline to collect that many signatures before they expire.

A group announced plans today to ask voters to repeal Michigan's Emergency Financial Manager law.  Recent changes to the law give broad powers to state appointed financial managers.  The EFM's have the authority to void union contracts and strip power from local elected governments and school districts. 

Brandon Jessup leads a group called 'The Campaign to Build Michigan'.   He says the law violates the rights of Michiganders.  Jessup says his group hopes to get approval for petition language next month.  

He says they hope to collect enough signatures to get the question put on the ballot in 2012. 

The mayor of Flint is expected to take a step this week toward asking the state to review his city's finances. It's a move that could potentially lead to a state appointed emergency manager taking over control of the city.   

The Flint Journal reported over the weekend that Mayor Dayne Walling plans to ask the Flint city council to consider requesting a state  review of the city's finances.   

 It's a move the mayor reportedly hopes will give him or the city council the power to alter city union contracts.   It could also lead to the appointment of an emergency manager.  

Less than a decade ago, Flint's finances were run by an emergency financial manager.    But recent changes in the law have given emergency managers much more power, including the ability to effectively strip  elected officials of their authority and throw out union contracts.  

Flint is struggling with a large projected budget deficit, and recently sold bonds to pay off a portion of the city's debt.

Benton Harbor continues to make headlines in national news as the city works to stabilize its finances.

Joe Harris was appointed as Emergency Manager last April by former Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Since then, Governor Rick Snyder has signed into law the expansion of an Emergency Mangers' power. Under the law, emergency managers can strip power from locally elected officials and dissolve union contracts.

Joe Harris is the first emergency manager to take advantage of the new law.

Michigan Radio's Jennifer White spoke with Harris. Here's the interview.

During the interview, Harris said he wanted to correct the record - that he didn't strip the elected officials in Benton Harbor of their power. Harris says their power was effectively stripped when the new Emergency Manager bill was signed into law by Governor Snyder:

"In that act... mayors, commissioners, and chief administrative officers of any city that was under the control of an emergency manager lost their authority.

I never stripped them. And so the news report that's all over the country that I stripped them of their authority is incorrect. They had no authority.

The only authority that they can have is the authority that's provided to them, or is given to them by the Emergency Manager."

On April 14th, Harris issued this order.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Election officials in Southwest Michigan rejected language for a recall petition against State Representative Al Pscholka this morning. They rejected the language because they said it wasn’t clear enough.

Benton Harbor City Commissioner Dennis Knowles filed the recall petition. Knowles wants to recall Pscholka for supporting the state’s new law that gives emergency managers more power over cities and school districts with major financial problems.

Knowles says the new laws “trash democracy.”

 “For specific reasons, that it allows super powers for dictatorship for a emergency financial manager; doing away with municipal governments and school boards.”

The law has provisions that could allow an emergency manager to ask the governor to remove elected officials from office.

Pscholka's response

Pscholka says most of people he talks to in Benton Harbor say they support the law. 

“Most of them really are kind of sick and tired of the financial mismanagement, the patronage, and really what some folks would describe as corruption.”

He says residents in Benton Harbor are being used as political pawns. He notes the city has had financial problems for several years.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

People came from as far away as Wisconsin to protest Governor Rick Snyder’s appearance in a parade through St. Joe and Benton Harbor Saturday afternoon. The governor of Michigan is invited to be the Grand Marshall of the parade every year.

“They asked me some time ago to participate in this wonderful festival and event and I’m happy to be here. And to the degree that people are exercising their democratic rights, I respect that. But it’s mainly about a quarter of a million people having a great day enjoying a wonderful part of Michigan.”

About 150 protesters mixed in with those gathered to watch the Blossomtime parade. They followed Snyder throughout the parade chanting “Recall Rick now!” and “Shame!” But there were some cheers of support mixed in with the demands to recall Snyder.

Governor Rick Snyder plans to act as the grand marshal of the annual Blossomtime Grand Floral parade in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, this saturday.

The Detroit News is reporting that groups are planning to protest the parade.

From the Associated Press:

Gov. Rick Snyder is scheduled to serve as grand marshal of the annual Blossomtime Grand Floral parade in southwestern Michigan.

wn.com

A West Michigan lawmaker has decided not to take part in a parade in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph Saturday because protests are expected at the event.

State Rep. Al Pscholka says the Blossomtime Parade is not the place to protest Michigan’s new Fiscal Accountability Act.

Demonstrators are expected to rally against the recent actions of an emergency financial manager in Benton Harbor, where the elected city commission was stripped of all its powers.

Pscholka, a Republican from Stevensville, says in a written statement the parade is a wholesome community event and not the forum for a political sideshow conducted by professional agitators.

A staff member in Pscholka’s office says the representative has left the state for a family event and is not available for further comment.

Governor Snyder will be the Grand Marshall at the Blossomtime Parade.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Elected city leaders in Benton Harbor are calling on Governor Rick Snyder to remove the city’s state-appointed emergency financial manager.

Snyder approved broader powers for emergency financial managers earlier this year.

Benton Harbor’s city commission adopted a resolution (full resolution available here) declaring those new powers unconstitutional.

Thursday Benton Harbor’s emergency financial manager Joe Harris rescinded that and any further resolutions adopted by elected city officials (full order available here), in accordance with an order he issued earlier this year.

Harris stripped power from elected city officials in March. That included the power to adopt resolutions, even non-binding ones.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor’s Emergency Manager says he hopes to get the city back on solid financial ground by the middle of next year. People in the community are still trying to figure out where they fit in to Joe Harris’ plans.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

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.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The emergency financial manager of Benton Harbor, Joe Harris, says the city will have a budget surplus in the coming fiscal year.

Harris says that’s because the new powers given to emergency managers allowed him to do his job more effectively.

Harris says that means he could leave Benton Harbor after two years of work, rather than the five years he originally thought it would take to turn the city around.

But not everyone is thrilled with the work Joe Harris has done, or with the new laws that granted him sweeping power over Benton Harbor.

Some big names have focused on Benton Harbor recently.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

About 200 people attended a rally in Benton Harbor against Joe Harris, the city’s emergency financial manager. Joe Harris was appointed to take over the city’s troubled finances last year by Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Harris is the first Emergency Manager in Michigan to exercise broad new powers Governor Rick Snyder signed into law last month. The law gives emergency managers more power to fix financial problems in school districts, cities and villages. Three cities (Benton Harbor Ecorse and Pontiac) and Detroit Public Schools are run by emergency managers.

The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus will hold a press conference today at noon with the Reverend Jesse Jackson in Benton Harbor.

Also in attendance will be Congressman John Conyers and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

Joe Harris, the city's state-appointed emergency manager, recently stripped power from local officials in Benton Harbor under the state's new emergency manager law.

The group says they will work to uphold voting rights as they plan to challenge the legality of the Emergency Manager law.

Fred Durhal, the chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, said they "oppose this Draconian legislation.":

"Our coalition is prepared to ask the Justice Department to review this legislation and we will fight litigation to challenge its constitutionality," said Durhal.

Reverend Jesse Jackson is quoted in the media advisory saying, "the wind from Benton Harbor is blowing toward Detroit. This legislation usurps democracy by taking away voters rights in Michigan. Our constitution protects democracy, this inalienable right is non-negotiable."

Photo of Robert Bobb, Former Emergency Manager at DPS
Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

The controversial emergency financial manager law gives broad powers to state-appointed officials who are brought in to help struggling cities and school districts.

It was signed into law last month by Governor Rick Snyder, now, as MPRN's Rick Pluta reports, two Detroit pension fund boards have filed a lawsuit challenging the state's emergency financial manager law. They say the law "illegally threatens contracts and collective bargaining agreements."

Under the law, emergency managers can strip power from locally elected officials and dissolve union contracts.

Pluta spoke with the emergency manager in charge of the Detroit Public Schools, Robert Bobb. He says these legal challenges won't help: 

"Because the legislation as it is is to kind of help escalate the resolution of problems and issues in localities and in school districts and any type of prolonged litigation does not really help advance what needs to be advanced to right the ship," says Bobb.

The Detroit News reports that the lawsuit was filed by Detroit's General Retirement System and the Police and Fire Retirement System:

The law "represents an imminent threat to the constitutional rights of plaintiffs and other members of the Detroit Retirement Systems," the funds' lawyer Ronald A. King wrote in the lawsuit.

More than 300 local officials and prospective emergency managers are in Lansing today and tomorrow to be trained in the state's new fiscal crisis law.

The law gives sweeping authority to emergency managers named to run school districts and local governments that can no longer pay their bills.

Terry Stanton of the Michigan Department of Treasury says the goal is for the state to intervene earlier to avoid the drastic step of a state takeover.

Benton Harbor EMF takes action

Apr 16, 2011

Benton Harbor appears to be the first city to come under a sweeping new Michigan law that allows emergency managers to take almost complete control of municipalities and school districts.

Benton Harbor emergency Manager Joseph Harris issued an order this week preventing city officials from doing anything more than calling meetings to order… adjourning them and approving minutes of meetings.

In other words, their decision-making powers have been suspended.

A financial emergency was declared in Benton Harbor in February 2010 by then-Governor Granholm after the city’s budget deficit grew by double digits.

A state board named former Detroit auditor general and chief financial officer Harris to run the city… with the power to control all spending and renegotiate union contracts.

Union leaders are critical of Harris’ move to take most powers away from city leaders. The AFL-CIO represents administrative workers and others in Benton Harbor.

Google Maps

Joseph Harris, the state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager of Benton Harbor, has stripped control from city officials.

It's the first time an emergency financial manager has used broad new powers granted to them by state legislators and Governor Rick Snyder.

Harris issued an order "prohibiting all action by all city boards, commissions and authorities, except as authorized by the emergency manager."

Here's the language from the order:

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED AS FOLLOWS:
1. Absent prior express written authorization and approval by the Emergency Manager, no City Board, Commission or Authority shall take any action for or on behalf of the City whatsoever other than:

i) Call a meeting to order.
ii) Approve of meeting minutes.
iii) Adjourn a meeting.

2. That all prior resolutions, or acts of any kind of the City in conflict herewith are and the same shall be, to the extent of such conflict, rescinded.

3. This order shall be effective immediately.

The Detroit News reported that Harris issued the order because the city has been ineffective at governing:

Benton Harbor has struggled with a controversial trash hauling contract, lawsuits related to the contract, new competition for water services and city officials who sometimes clashed to the point that meetings dragged on for hours, Joseph said.

"I have seen for more than 30 years the mismanagement of funds and personnel in the city," Joseph said. "Infighting has been going on for decades."

It probably comes as no surprise that the relationship between Harris and government officials has been contentious.

In 2010, according to South Bend NBC affiliate WNDU , City Commissioner Duane Seats compared Harris to a disease within the city after Harris fired nine police officers, and worked to eliminate the city's fire department:

"Right now there's no cure for him, but I decree and declare that these city commissioners that we have now and with the citizens help we will find a cure. We will find a cure for this disease that we have here in the 49022 that's called Joe must go," said Seats.

In a statement published on the Daily Kos, Michigan's AFL-CIO president Mark Gaffney called the order from Harris "sad for democracy in Michigan": 

"It comes after the announcement of Robert Bobb in Detroit ordering layoff of every single public school teacher in the Detroit Public School system. With the stripping of all power of duly elected officials in Benton harbor and the attack on Detroit school teachers, we can now see the true nature of the Emergency Manager system."

One elected official in Benton Harbor wasn't bothered by Harris' order. City Commissioner Bryan Joseph was quoted in the Detroit News saying, "It doesn't bother me, I'm in favor of it." According to the News, state-appointed emergency financial managers are working in four places in Michigan:

Triin Q / wikipedia commons

New casinos would open in seven Michigan cities, under a measure a group hopes to get onto the ballot in 2012.

Bill Thompson is a casino expert from Las Vegas who helped draft the proposed constitutional amendment, which calls for a 19% wagering tax for the casinos. He says it would raise about $400 million in tax revenues. More than half the money would fund college scholarships and a tourism ad campaign.

Thompson says much of the rest would go to the communities that host the casinos:

"This will bring money into Saginaw, Benton Harbor – two cities that are in desperate financial situations, also Lansing, Grand Rapids – two cities that need help."

The measure also calls for casinos in Mount Clemens, Detroit and Romulus, where Alan Lambert is the mayor:

"There’s so many people out of work. In my own community there’s a lot of people out of work. So to a city like Romulus this means revenue obviously, and it means a lot of jobs."

Detroit’s three existing casinos will likely put on a vigorous fight to block the measure. And since it’s a statewide vote, opponents say it takes away residents’ rights to decide whether they want a casino in their communities.

The group failed to get a similar measure onto the 2010 ballot.

Google Maps

The Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on the dispute around Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor.

In 1917, some land along Lake Michigan was given to the city of Benton Harbor. The "Friends of Jean Klock Park" describe the gift this way:

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 and was dedicated "FOR THE CHILDREN" - "in perpetuity" - "FOREVER."

Today, the city of Benton Harbor has leased part of the park to the Harbor Shores Community Redevelop Corporation. The Redevelop Corporation used the land, including sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline for 3 holes of an 18 hole golf course.

Residents didn't like it and they filed a lawsuit. The case made it to the Michigan Supreme Court yesterday.

Vincent Duffy / Michigan Radio

Attorneys will make their case before Michigan’s Supreme Court Friday over a disputed Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in Benton Harbor. The course opened last summer.

Nearly a century ago, the Jean Klock Park was donated to the city of Benton Harbor for public recreation. The city leased part of the 90-acre park to non-profit developer Harbor Shores Community Redevelop Corporation, who used land including sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline for 3 holes of an 18 hole golf course.

John Cameron represents the developers.

“We’re not focusing here on three golf holes, we’re focusing here on the entirety of a park and what its being used for, all the different uses; picnicking, hiking, kite-flying, volleyball, concerts, triathlons, and golf.”

Michigan’s Court of Appeals agreed with Cameron that designating part of it as a golf course is not against the restrictions. It also ruled that the city is allowed to lease the land.

A state panel has named an emergency financial manager to run the city of Benton Harbor. Governor Granholm declared a financial emergency in Benton Harbor in February.

State officials say Benton Harbor's financial troubles include a deficit that has been growing by double digits. The city asked for an emergency infusion of cash from the state last month to make its payroll.

A state board named former Detroit auditor general and chief financial officer Joseph Harris to run the city, with the power to control all spending and renegotiate union contracts.

Terry Stanton is a spokesman for the state Treasury. He says drastic action is needed at times to set a city's finances right.

"The state is only as financially strong as the units within the state and, unfortunately, sometimes it's a long ways down the road before the state can step in," says Stanton.

Benton Harbor is the third city in Michigan being run by an emergency manager. The others are Pontiac and Ecorse.

Developers in Benton Harbor hope a new resort and Jack Nicklaus signature golf course will improve the economically depressed city. But plans call for three of the golf holes to be built inside Jean Klock Park, next to Lake Michigan beachfront. Activists hoping to save the park have sued in federal court, but construction at the park is underway. Officials with Harbor Shores Redevelopment say they are not building the golf course holes, but instead are working on park improvements as part of a lease agreement with the city.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has approved developers plans to build part of a golf course over a Benton Harbor beachfront park.

Developers want to build a golf course resort along Lake Michigan in Benton Harbor. The plan calls for three of holes to be inside Jean Klock Park.

Residents opposed to the golf course say the development is illegal and will destroy the sand dunes. But they didn't get a chance to make their case because the D-N-R approved the plan without discussion or a public meeting.

Five years ago riots in Benton Harbor, Michigan drew national attention to racial issues and poverty there.

Today an arm of the Whirlpool Corporation wants to build a golf resort in the struggling city.

The location has some city residents less than pleased.

Benton Harbor is the poorest city in Michigan.

Unemployment is officially at 17% and the median household income is in the teens.

Vacant lots and boarded up buildings litter the downtown. But there is natural beauty in Benton Harbor.

Jean Klock Park

Apr 21, 2008

The city of Benton Harbor is deeply divided over the future of Jean Klock Park. And like many things in America, this is, not far below the surface, a story about race and class, and history.

Yet there is also an element of Victorian romance here. My guess is that most of the people fighting over the issue don’t know much about the man behind it.

John Nellis Klock lived a classic Horatio Alger story. He was born in upstate New York the year the Civil War ended, into a family so poor he had to go to work full-time as a typesetter at age eleven.

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