Some city leaders in Benton Harbor are angry after the state-appointed emergency financial manager stripped their power and authority this week. Now, they hope Rev. Jesse Jackson will help shine the national spotlight on their struggling city.
In front of an audience of church leaders and city leaders on Wednesday, Jackson encouraged the city of Benton Harbor to fight for democracy.
"Clearly we must prepare to file a major lawsuit to restore democratic rights in Benton Harbor," said Jackson. He encouraged church and city leaders to form a coalition.
Jackson spoke in front of an audience of about 30 people inside the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church Fellowship Hall in Benton Harbor.
In March, Michigan's governor signed a law granting more powers to emergency managers. On Friday the emergency financial manager in Benton Harbor — hired to help balance the budget there — suspended the decision-making powers of city officials. That order means they can only call meetings to order, adjourn them and approve minutes of meetings. On Wednesday Jackson encouraged city leaders to fight back.
"You don't solve an economic crisis by decapitating mayors and city council people. You don't solve the economic crisis by replacing democracy with dictators in the name of emergency," said Jackson.
Jackson said he hoped his visit to Benton Harbor was a wakeup call. He wanted elected positions to be restored and workers collective bargaining to be revived.
City leaders in attendance hoped Jackson's voice would help power their mission.
"I am enthusiastic," said Benton Harbor Mayor Wilce Cooke, "I think it was a great meeting. There is a movement out there in support for Benton Harbor to help us oversee and overcome the adversity that we have with a financial manager."
Not every city leader agrees with Cooke. Commissioner-at-Large Bryan Joseph supports the work the city's emergency financial manager is doing and says Jackson doesn't live in Benton Harbor and doesn't understand what is going on in Benton Harbor.
"I really don't think it is right for Jesse Jackson to come into Benton Harbor and tell us what we need to do when this has been a problem for many years,” he said. “Remember, this didn't start two years ago, five years ago, six years ago. This has been going on for over three decades. The majority of the people in Benton Harbor support what the emergency manager is doing. We [the city commission] have had the opportunity to fix the problem. We didn't take advantage of it. This is the end result. And that is why the emergency financial manager is here taking the steps to address the financial problems."