Maxey among 28 Michiganders presented with Voice of Justice Award by Sugar Law

December 1, 2011

Ahmina Maxey and Dr. Tom Stephens on a recent EJ panel

DETROIT -- EMEAC Associate Director Ahmina Maxey was one of 28 Michigan residents presented with the Maurice Sugar Voice for Justice Award by the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice on November 16 during a special "Essential Advocacy for Community Justice" reception at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Maxey and 27 other private citizens of the state were recognized for their roles as plaintiffs in a legal action challenging Michigan's controversial Emergency Manager Law. 

Joining Ahmina in receiving the award were Libby Brown of Jackson, Lori Christenson of Southfield, Jay Clancey of Negaunee, Betsy Coffia of Traverse City, Barbara Davenport of Pontiac, Barbara Ford of Detroit, Evelyn Foreman of Detroit, Dave Frederick of Montague, Hon. Juanita Henry of Benton Harbor, Dave Ivers of St. Clair Shores, Paul Jordan of Flint, Emma Kinnard of Benton Harbor, Maryion Lee of Flushing, Edith Lee-Payne of Detroit, Leslie Little of Detroit, Michelle Martinez of Southwest Detroit, Michael Merriweather of Ann Arbor, Pat O'Connor of Pontiac, Lisa Oliver-King of Grand Rapids, Tameka Ramsey of Pontiac, George and Brenda Reeber of Ludington, Sister Suzanne Sattler of Detroit, Marcia Sikora of Farmington Hills, Kym Spring of Grand Rapids, Jacquie Steingold of Detroit and Irene Wright of Pontiac. Their range of occupations include a Catholic nun, college professors, educators, psychologists, social workers, community organizers, wetlands biologists, college students, homemakers, business agents, a registered nurse, an anesthesia technician, an electrical contractor, an IT  professional and retirees. 

"They have all been phenomenal," said Sugar Law Executive Director Tova Perlmutter. "We have 28 people from all over the state. Some of them are from extremely beleaguered communities that already do have an emergency manager. Some of them are from communities that are at risk of having emergency managers. Some of them are from communities that probably won't have to cope with that because they are affluent, but every one of these individuals believe that this is an affront to their rights as a voter in the state of Michigan."

Also known as Public Act 4 or the "Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act", the Emergency Manager law stipulates that if the Governor designates a financial emergency for a city, he can appoint an Emergency Manager who has total control over the city’s operations—not just the finances.

When an Emergency Manager is in place, the governing body and chief administrative officer of the unit of local government are prohibited from exercising any of their powers of offices without written approval of the Emergency Manager, and their compensation and benefits are eliminated.

 Within 45 days of appointment, an Emergency Manager must develop a written financial and operating plan. 

In addition to other powers, an Emergency Manager may reject, modify, or terminate collective bargaining agreements, recommend consolidation or dissolution of units of local government.

Detroit, which has an 80 percent African American population by some estimates, is among the cities in the state under the threat of being imposed with an emergency manager. Benton Harbor, which has an over 90 percent African American population, is among those already under the measure's authority. 

"Although I did not grow up in Detroit, it has a place in my heart like nowhere else," Maxey is quoted as saying in the event's program. "I want to come back to my people, my culture and my family's home and am working hard to see Detroit rise up as a great city. However, I am fearful of living somewhere where I have no democratic rights as a citizen. This law squanders my rights as a citizen of Michigan, a resident of Ferndale and a potential Detroiter."

Sugar Law's challenge to the law is currently in litigation at the lower court level. However, Governor Rick Snyder is attempting to head off the challenge by having the case go directly before the state supreme court according to Perlmutter. 

"Right now we are in a kind of weird state because the governor has asked the Supreme Court to grab the law suit away from the lower court and to take and just go straight through to fast track it," she said. "They want to short circuit it at the supreme court level. They Supreme Court has not decided that they are going to do that.

"It’s kind of interesting because there was supposed to be this rush, rush demand, but it’s been three months since he even asked it. It’s going to be another month before the Supreme Court even gets answers to the briefs that they requested on whether they should take the case."

In the meantime, Sugar Law plans to pursue the action on behalf of the citizens of Michigan. 

"In the meantime, the trial court judge is moving ahead with it," Perlmutter said. "We’ve introduced requests for discovery. The state has said, ‘We don’t have to provide any information about how we run the state.’ We said, ‘Yeah you should,’ and we won on that issue.

"Obviously, that’s just the first procedural issue in a long complicated set of facts. Basically, the governor wants it to go straight to the supreme court because that’s how you eliminate the fact finding part of the operation. It’s just saying, ‘Let’s not make an actual decision based on the way it’s affecting people’s lives. Let’s just do what we want.’"

Whether or not the legal challenge falls on deaf ears to the state's judicial or political systems, Sugar Law, a national non-profit organization dedicated to defending the rights of working people and their communities since 1991, is hopeful that their challenge to the EM law will at least raise awareness in the court of public opinion around what many believe to be an affront to the basic principles of democracy on which our society is founded. 

"We went into this as a lawsuit, but also as a public education campaign," Perlmutter said. "It's part of how we operate because we truly believe at the Sugar Law Center that we don't just take on cases for a victory. We take on cases to work with the people in the community to try and work on issues that matter to them. 

"We have tried from the beginning to explain to the press and to the public that this is an emergency. It's an emergency for Democracy. Fiscal issues are not an emergency. The emergency for people is around their own lives. I think our legal director, John Philo captured it best when he said, 'This law is about the belief that the only people who should have voting rights are the people with wealth.'If you don't have money, Democracy is a luxury that you can't afford.'

"We don't believe that and we don't believe the people of this state believe that. We need help in getting the word out and that's part of the reason why we are doing the case. (The plaintiffs) have all given their time and their energy. They are spreading the word about this and putting lots of energy into defeating this outrage."