Headline in The New York Times: “Anger in Michigan Over Appointing Emergency Managers”
Headline in The Nation: “The Scandal of Michigan’s Emergency Managers”
Headline in the Arizona Daily Star: “Problems in Michigan show rift over emergency managers”
Clearly, the headlines listed above are disturbing. As a certified emergency manager, my interest naturally piques when I come across a headline which indicates that there might be problems with my profession which is focused on disaster management. What the heck is going on in Michigan? Why are people angry with the Emergency Managers? What rifts have been created? The fact that events have caused such questions to be raised is of concern to both me and the others I know that work in the field of emergency management.
They seem like strange questions. Why? Well, because the “emergency managers’ that I know are dedicated public servants who are focused on saving lives, preventing injuries, and protecting property when a disaster occurs. These individuals are busy making plans, organizing resources, and analyzing data all in an effort to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from effects of all types of hazards. Perhaps getting organizations and citizens prepared for the hurricane season which begins on June 1st. Perhaps sending out warning and alerts when a river is outside its banks and threatens a community. Perhaps working with federal disaster aid workers who arrive in a community where a tornado has touched down causing loss of life and damages to homes and businesses.
Usually citizens do not get “angry” about the work of emergency managers— but they seem to do so in Michigan? It made me wonder why that could be. Well, the answer is actually quite simple—- though Michigan does have its share of “disaster emergency managers,” they also have other positions, created by the State Legislature, that focus on “emergency financial managers.” These “emergency financial managers” do not necessarily focus on disasters of all types (e.g. hurricanes, public health, etc…); instead they are individuals appointed by the Governor of Michigan to take control of a local governments facing a financial emergency. Sometimes they are even appointed to take control of public schools.
More than twenty times a Governor has appointed a manager to supplant a governing body or a chief executive officer to fix a financial problem. After being appointed, these “emergency financial managers” have the authority to remove any of the governing body’s elected officials if they are not providing adequate assistance. These managers are empowered to take total control of the finances of the agency, including having the ability to reduce pay, use private contractors, reorganize agency departments, and modify employee contracts. They undoubtedly have tough jobs to do and obviously limited resources to do those jobs. But, also, these emergency managers are often “outsiders” who are taking charge over and above the sentiments of the local populations and elected officials. So, now I get it. Now the headlines above make some sense—– I can clearly envision individuals who have “all the financial power” making citizens angry and causing rifts in a community.
The problem is that in Michigan, these individuals are simply called “Emergency Managers.” That is misleading and confusing in many ways. The headlines make sense to me now—- but I have a long background in municipal government working as both a city manager and an emergency manager (or should I specifically state a “disaster” emergency manager). And I spent the time to investigate what is actually going on in Michigan.
But for the average citizen perusing the Internet, or who may still read a newspaper, they do not know there are two type of “emergency managers.” They are not going to investigate the differences and they are going to assume that all “emergency managers” are the same because the moniker is the same—- even though the duties of the two types are not remotely the same. And presently, you are probably hearing the term used many times in reference to the Flint, Michigan contaminated water emergency.
In a news release issued today, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), believes “there is serious confusion and misunderstanding of the use of the term “emergency manager” in the press and public related to the Flint water situation,” as well as previous use of “emergency managers” in places like Detroit, Pontiac, and Benton Harbor, just to name a few locations. So, what is the problem?
Robie Robinson, President of IAEM, takes a stab at answering that particular question in the news release. He states that “the use of the term ’emergency manager’ to describe these appointed financial managers in Michigan has generated an incredible amount of dangerous confusion for the public, especially since the Flint issue has now become a national story. Dedicated emergency managers across the country now are being forced to address questions that underline a misguided sense of concern about the role of an emergency manager.” And, of course, Mr. Robinson is referring to the “disaster-type” of emergency manager.
“Unfortunately, an impression is beginning to take shape that emergency managers exist to cut budgets and reduce costs at the expense of the community safety and security,” Robinson noted, when indeed the exact opposite is true.” As described above in this blog entry, the emergency managers most familiar in communities across the country, and including more than 4,200 professional emergency managers in the United States, do not act in a manner as a financial experts with immense powers to rein in the spending habits of a community. Instead, most emergency managers work daily to collaborate with the community—- public safety agencies, non-profit organizations, the private sector, the media, in essence the “whole community,” in an effort to support disaster response and recovery efforts and build relationships to keep the community safe both on a daily basis; and in times of disaster. And most importantly, they are not outsiders, they are members of the communities who build trust with those they serve.
“One thing must be made absolutely clear: the term ‘emergency manager’ in the Flint, Michigan, situation refers to a fiscal-‐only function that bears no relationship to the term as it is commonly and universally used on national and an international basis,” states Robinson. “In the context of the Flint situation, emergency managers are actually municipal ‘emergency financial managers’ (EFMs) established by the Michigan legislature and appointed by the governor to oversee jurisdictions in Michigan that are threatened with financial insolvency.”
One last point I would like to make is that this confusion never really had to happen. In Michigan, when this emergency manager position was created by Public Act 101 of 1988 (and as amended by Public Act 72 of 1990), the term used was actually “Emergency Financial Manager.” But, as I understand the history, Public Act 72 was replaced by Public Act 4 of 2011, which RENAMED the position to emergency manager.
So the solution seems relatively simple—-let’s go back to the name of Emergency Financial Manager, or EFT, as was initially legislated in the early 1990s. As stated in its news release today, “IAEM urges all media, members of government, and other leaders to educate the public, and help clarify that, in Michigan, an individual who is appointed to oversee a governmental body or jurisdiction because it is threatened with financial insolvency is not an ’emergency manager,’ but rather an ’emergency financial manager.’”