Pointedly bogus

Surprise: Big corporate players’ roles stalling the EM repeal referendum

As this column is being written, it's still not known how a three-judge panel at the state Court of Appeals will rule in Stand Up for Democracy vs. Board of State Canvassers.

Whatever the outcome, though, people need to keep in this mind: Democracy is under assault in this state. 

That much is abundantly clear. What remains to be seen is whether a majority of voters give a damn.

The court case involves an attempt to let the people of Michigan decide whether to keep the state's emergency manager law, formally known as PA-4.

Signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder early last year, PA-4 allows appointed managers to take control of financially struggling municipalities and school districts. With the power to void collective bargaining agreements, sell off public assets and stop paying elected officials, these managers hold near-dictatorial power. They are accountable only to the governor, not the people who must live with the consequences of their decisions.

Opponents of the law quickly mounted a two-pronged attack: First, a lawsuit was filed seeking to have PA-4 overturned on the basis that it is clearly unconstitutional. The argument is that the state cannot take away the power of duly elected public officials. That lawsuit is still being hashed out in court.

Not wanting to wait for the challenge to work its way through the courts, opponents of PA-4 also mounted a drive to put the issue directly in front of voters through the initiative process. A small army of volunteers gathered 225,885 signatures — 65,000 more than the 161,000 needed to get the issue on the ballot.

Once enough signatures were verified as valid, it was up to the state's Board of Canvassers to grant approval for the measure to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. It should have been automatic. 

But then an outfit calling itself Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility stepped in. The group's stated goal is to defeat the ballot measure at all costs. And the quickest way to do that is to keep it from going in front of voters at all. In fact, killing the measure before it gets placed on the ballot would seem to be a priority; supporters of the initiative say the law will be suspended from the time it is placed on the ballot until voters are allowed to have their say.

And who's behind Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility?

According to published reports, Bob LaBrant, John Llewellyn and Larry Meyer formed the group. 

They are hardly what you'd call grassroots types. Meyer, who's now retired, formerly served as CEO of the Michigan Retailers Association. Llewellyn is currently vice president of government relations for the Michigan Bankers Association. LaBrant, who for years headed up the Michigan Chamber of Commerce's political action group, recently went to work for the Sterling Corporation, which describes itself as "a premier Republican communications company specializing in public affairs, political campaigns, ballot initiatives, and fundraising for corporations, trade associations, issue advocacy groups and political candidates who cannot afford to lose ..."

It's here where things get particularly malodorous.

Once the state verified that more than enough valid signatures had been collected by Stand Up for Democracy, LaBrant and his group stepped in to challenge it based on a technicality. They claimed that the heading on the petition form itself wasn't printed using a 14-point, bold-faced type. 

That challenge was made even though the law says such petitions need only be "substantially in compliance" with the requirements. So, at best, the group was trying to scuttle a successful statewide effort to get a measure on the ballot by complaining about something as inconsequential as exact font size.

But it turns out that things are even more scurrilous than that.

The question of whether the measure would make it to the ballot went before the state Board of Canvassers on April 26. The board is made up of four appointees — two Republicans and two Democrats.

They split along party lines, with the Republicans using the font size issue as their reason for casting a "no" vote. According to the rules, a tie-vote put a stop to the measure making it to the ballot.

What we now know, however, is that some behind-the-scenes action took place that exposes all the right-wing maneuvering for the charade it really is. 

In this case, before the Board of Canvassers vote, the head of the state's Bureau of Elections reached out to an expert to get an independent evaluation of the petition's font size.

In an e-mail dated April 23, Chris Thomas, who heads the bureau of elections, contacted Chris Corneal, an associate professor of graphic design at Michigan State University, and asked him to review the petition's heading.

Now, remember that someone in Thomas' position is duty-bound to ensure elections are fair.

After Corneal verified the type of font used, a style known as Calibri, he e-mailed Thomas to say that it appeared that the required 14-point size was used in the petition.

"I think it is a pretty good guess that Calibri Bold at 14pt. is used ..." Corneal wrote. He also gave "kudos" to the bureau's people for identifying the font type.

But Corneal's opinion only served to create a problem for Thomas.

"Tomorrow morning I will have to attempt to explain why 14 point Calibri is not really 14 point size," Thomas wrote to the professor.

The solution to the dilemma was to not tell the Board of Canvassers anything about Corneal and his opinion.

Instead, the bureau's report to the board before the vote stated that "it would appear to be proper for the Board to render a decision regarding the sufficiency of the referendum petition" based on the font size issue.

As we said, the board split 2-2 along party lines. One of those two "no" votes came from Jeffrey Timmer, a Republican who's a partner at the Sterling Corporation — the same firm that employs LaBrant, who is leading the charge to thwart the ballot measure.

Can you say "conflict of interest"? 

Asked why Corneal's opinion wasn't provided to the board, Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson — a Republican who oversees the Bureau of Elections — told News Hits: "We don't issue staff reports based on pretty good guesses."

Greg Bowens, a spokesman for Stand Up for Democracy, has a different take on the situation.

"The fix was in," he says.

When the Stand Up side heard a rumor about Corneal evaluating the petition before the Board of Canvassers vote, its lawyers attempted to obtain an order from the Court of Appeals that would have allowed them to subpoena Corneal and obtain his testimony.

Lawyers for Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility got the court to quash that motion.

However, Corneal himself voluntarily supplied a sworn affidavit saying that he had notified the Secretary of State's office that the font on the petition was 14 point bold. That affidavit was included in court filings.

No matter how the court of appeals rules, though, it is virtually certain the losing side will seek to take the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Citizens of all political stripes should be deeply concerned about this. Hell, they should be flat-out irate.

Whatever your opinion of the emergency manager law, it is indisputably undemocratic. Taking away the power of elected officials to do the work voters put them in office to do can't be characterized in any other way.

But then, when people organize in a legal way in an attempt to overturn that law, only to see well-funded special interests playing these sorts of dirty tricks in order to prevent democracy from working and allowing voters to have their say, it has to be apparent just how desperate the other side is to neuter the democratic process.

Now the state is wasting taxpayer money to support a bogus challenge to a legitimate measure that voters clearly have a right to decide. Even more disturbing, though, is how motivated forces on the right are to chew away at the foundations of our democracy.

As attorney Herb Sanders, who represents the Stand Up for Democracy group, told the Court of Appeals:

"This case is not about substantial compliance. It's not about font size. This case is about philosophy and how we're going to govern in Michigan — whether we're going to adhere to their philosophy of making it difficult for people to petition their government or whether you are going to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States."

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

About The Author

Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles
Join the Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.