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Benton Harbor residents mull difficult options to address challenges

By Lindsey Smith, Michigan Public Radio Network


Politicians and national media have been parachuting in to Benton Harbor lately. They're talking about the city's emergency manager Joe Harris. Harris was the first emergency manager in Michigan to exercise broad new powers under a state law passed last month--essentially removing power from elected city officials. The Michigan Public Radio Network's Lindsey Smith spoke with many of those officials and Benton Harbor residents to hear what they think of the situation.

Ronnie White Low cracks the windows in his black Ford Crown Victoria. He asks permission to light a cigarette from a pack of Pall Malls before unloading his story.
He was a city planning commissioner. But Benton Harbor's emergency manager replaced White Low and other city officials.

"I found out through my niece," he explains. "She called me Sunday before last and she said did you know you were taken off of planning commission?'"

White Low isn't happy about the state taking over Benton Harbor. He's also not happy with the manager that stripped his title away. But White Low is the first of many residents who say the city has so many problems it's hard to know where to begin to fix any of them. This is City Commissioner Bryan Joseph.

"From my perspective, the only way we can turn this city around is having an emergency manager in place,' he says.

Joseph's powers are mostly gone now too. But he supports the state's new law that gives broader powers to emergency managers. He says Benton Harbor's city government is totally dysfunctional.

"The name calling, the back-biting and people can't separate the business from the personal and that is what has been going on in Benton Harbor for decades," he says.

Joseph and others say that's because commissioners disagree about what's best for Benton Harbor.

Take Whirlpool as an example. The manufacturing giant came up in every conversation I had. People are either with Whirlpool, because of the economic investment it brings. Or, people are against Whirlpool - a super successful company they say is taking advantage of a city that's desperate for cash and jobs.

Again, former Planning Commissioner Ronnie White Low.

"There's nothing wrong with Whirlpool other than the fact that whirlpool found some idiots that are destroying our city and our way of life," he says. "And that's our - going back to us as the residents. That's our fault."

White Low says he used to go door-to-door telling residents about a number of issues he says were suspicious at city hall. But he says people never responded.

Reverend Edward Pinkney is President of Benton Harbor's NAACP chapter and a longtime activist against city authority and development plans. Before now, he says, not too many people in the city cared about getting involved.

"It didn't affect them until we got into this position," he explains. "Now everything that's happened - they're angry. They don't know what to do, you know?"

Pinkney is rallying hard against the city's emergency manager. He knows the city's finances need to be fixed, but he says the emergency manager Joe Harris doesn't have the resident's best interest in mind.

He led a march through the city recently. His picket sign declared "Joe Harris is a dictator."

Elizabeth Frost watches the 200 or so protestors march by her small coffee shop.

Frost opened the Phoenix two years ago after moving to Benton Harbor from South Carolina. Frost says she's glad to give the emergency manager a chance to turn things around.

"I think we needed somebody who wasn't a part of all this," she says. "Who wasn't so deeply ingrained - and their family and their brother and their cousin and their, everybody else - who could look at it objectively."

Frost looks at the current situation mostly as a math problem.

"Get us out of debt," she suggests. "Yeah a bunch of people's feet are going to get stepped on and feelings hurt and egos bruised and all of that. But just get us out of debt."

Benton Harbor's emergency manager says he'll be able to get the city out of deficit spending - as soon as next year.

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