Ballot battles

The shameful way supporters of the emergency manager law are trying to shut down a referendum on it

Last week, when one of the News Hits crew appeared on Craig Fahle's radio program over at WDET, the host asked what we thought about the Detroit International Bridge Company's efforts to place on the ballot a measure that seeks to block construction of a publicly owned span downriver.

We replied that, even though we don't like what billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun and his company are trying to do, they are playing within the rules. If they succeed in getting their measure on the ballot, then it's game on, and supporters of the new bridge will have to make their case to the public.

That's the way things are supposed to work in a democracy. Two sides engage in debate, and work to get their respective messages out. The media and others evaluate the arguments and help voters separate fact from fiction. And then the people decide.

It doesn't matter whether you agree with the bridge company's agenda. What's important is the process and its integrity.

Which is why we are so outraged by what's going on with regard to the proposed ballot measure that seeks to rescind the state's emergency manager law.

We've made no secret of the fact that, in our not-always-so-humble opinion, what's officially known as Public Act 4 is itself inherently anti-democratic. We elect mayors and city councils and school boards to make decisions. If they make bad decisions, then we have the power to vote them out of office.

So a law that can eviscerate the power of those duly elected officials — and replace them with an appointed manager who can, among other things, void legal contracts and sell off public assets — is the antithesis of democracy.

Sure, democracy can be messy. And there are systems of governance that are surely more efficient. People often credit Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for "making the trains run on time," but this country fought a war in an attempt to keep the world safe from that sort of unchecked authoritarianism.

Which is why we believe that PA 4 is a bad law.

But whether you agree with the emergency manager law isn't the immediate point. What should have people of all political persuasions up in arms is the low-down way supporters of the law are trying to keep the state's voters from having their say on the issue.

Here is what's happened so far:

After the state Legislature approved PA 4 and Gov. Rick Snyder signed it into law, opponents launched a two-pronged attack. One was to challenge the law in court, claiming it is unconstitutional. That legal battle is still under way.

The other tack involved an effort to have the state's voters repeal the law. To do so, 161,304 valid signatures had to be collected to place the measure on the ballot. Volunteers with the Stand Up for Democracy coalition gathered more than 226,000 names and submitted them to the secretary of state's office. 

After a review of the petitions, the state declared that more than enough valid signatures had been gathered to put the referendum before voters. Only the perfunctory approval from the state Board of Canvassers was needed to complete the process.

Then the dirty tricks began. A conservative group calling itself Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility challenged the measure. Headed by Bob LaBrant, who formerly ran political and legal operations for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility said, among other things, that the petition heading was smaller than the legally mandated 14-point font size.

Despite proof offered by proponents that the proper font size was used, two of the four members on the Board of Canvassers — both Republicans — voted against putting the measure on the ballot. That split decision was enough to block the measure from moving forward.

So proponents took their case to the Michigan Court of Appeals. There, a three-member panel correctly ruled that backers of the referendum were in "substantial compliance" with the law, and that it should be placed on the ballot.

Well-established precedent gave the judges no other choice. But that didn't keep them from staying their own opinion so that all 28 appellate court judges could be polled to see if they had any interest in appointing a seven-member panel to evaluate that precedent.

They didn't. Which means that the Board of Canvassers, under orders from the Court of Appeals, is legally obligated to place the measure on the ballot.

That still hasn't occurred, which is why about 100 people showed up at the court of appeals in Detroit last week to watch as a motion was filed asking the court to issue an order within seven days telling the canvassers that they must act immediately.

During a press conference held after that motion was filed, Melvin "Butch" Hollowell, attorney for the Detroit branch of the NAACP, pointed out that, of the last 17 ballot measures approved by the Board of Canvassers, none had the 14-point type that's supposedly required.

The point was made to demonstrate just how bogus the whole issue is, and how desperate opponents are to keep voters from having a say on this issue.

Dirty tricks are being pulled in an attempt to thwart the democratic process and prevent citizens from having their say on a law that itself is anti-democratic.

How's that for irony?

If nothing else, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility are succeeding in drawing things out, forcing opponents of the law to spend valuable time and limited resources in a fight to just get this measure on the ballot instead of being able to put all of their efforts into campaigning for its passage.

Frustration and anger over all this political chicanery were evident at last week's press conference.

Part of the concern is that, as soon as this measure is placed on the ballot, the emergency manager law is put on ice at least until voters have their say. 

The "stalling tactics" being employed give the "dictator law more time to entrench itself," the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the local NAACP observed. He called this effort to deny people the right to vote "the highest level of injustice I've seen in the 62 years I've lived in Michigan."

As the Rev. Ed Rowe, pastor of downtown Detroit's Faith United Methodist Church, pointed out, this issue isn't of importance to just African-Americans or Detroiters. It transcends race and municipal boundaries. 

He's right. The protesters who gathered at the Court of Appeals last week were there not just to show opposition to a law, but also to stand up and join the fight to preserve basic principles of democracy.

We all should be thankful to them for that.

News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected].

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