On Monday, February 6, the Undergraduate Political Science Association (UPSA) hosted “A Debate on the Emergency Financial Manager Law: Democracy, Expertise, and the Public Good in Financially Troubled Cities,” with a panel consisting of the following policymakers:
• Representative Jeff Irwin
• Howard Ryan, Director of Legislative Affairs, Michigan Department of Treasury
• Conan Smith, Washtenaw County Commissioner
• Dayne Walling, Mayor of Flint

An audience of more than one hundred attendees squeezed into Political Science conference rooms to hear panelists from different political parties present their different perspectives on the Emergency Manager Law.  The audience learned about the rationale for and background of the current law, as Commissioner Smith explained the importance of being able to assign Financial Managers when elected officials are no longer able to ensure that basic public services can be delivered.

Rep. Irwin emphasized that the current law was supposed to provide remedies for defects in previous versions but that—due to typical problems of legislative process—many of those defects remained. In response to criticisms of the law as undemocratic, Howard Ryan explained that, compared to municipal bankruptcy, the Financial Managers are able to respect many more aspects of democratic process, and many more facets of existing contracts.

Mayor Walling, whose city is currently under the charge of a Financial Manager, made the very important observation that what these managerial arrangements seem to save in financial capital, they may cost us in social capital because Emergency management allows citizens so many fewer opportunities to be involved in the political process.

Following the presentations, there was almost an hour for questioning by students, journalists, and members of the public. One student’s question, “Why are the Financial Manager’s salaries so much higher than those of the elected officials whom they replace?”, prompted the most charged exchange of the evening.

Howard Ryan explained that the Financial Managers have a hard job because they have to take unpopular decisions and have few allies. Rep. Irwin countered that being a police officer in Flint is his idea of a hard job—one that starts at about 1/3 the salary of a Financial Manager. Despite stark disagreements such as this one, the evening was characterized more by constructive disagreement than by partisan bickering. Students and Ann Arbor citizens alike were pleased with the opportunity to confront their representatives and pose challenging questions about the conflict between democracy and expertise in time of financial emergency.

Photos by Kristin A. Darby