Michael Brown has spent decades in public service putting out fires. Nine years ago, he restored order at the Capital Area United Way after a $900,000 embezzlement scandal. He’s also served as interim mayor of the city he grew up in, Flint.Today, Brown is battling his biggest firestorm yet. For the last six months, he has served as Flint’s Emergency Manager. WKAR’s Mark Bashore has this profile of a Lansing resident in the eye of a political storm.
Take a seat in Michael Brown’s downtown Flint office and it’s impossible not to see the man who inspired his career.
“One of the pictures you see on the wall here is Robert F. Kennedy and he was one of my heroes growing up,” he explains. “He was one who inspired me to get involved in public service back in the sixties.”
The image of the iconic liberal is strangely out of sync with the all the authority that’s been handed to Brown. Last year’s controversial emergency manager law allows him to cancel union contracts, to hire and fire at will and to sell city assets.
But years of budget shortfalls and hundreds of millions in unmet future obligations offer few options. So how does an RFK-inspired liberal justify having so much authority? Brown says the city he loves is in extraordinary circumstances.
“When you go from 80,000 General Motors jobs to 7,000 General Motors jobs, I mean, it’s impacted the city of Flint in ways that we never dreamed,” he says.
Out in front of the city building on Saginaw Street, there is no visible emergency. Midday traffic flows predictably. But the city’s uncertain future isn’t far from residents’ minds. A recently imposed city budget required service cuts and fee increases totaling $25 million. Crime and crumbling infrastructure are other huge problems. After six months with the new emergency manager, Melody Centers is not encouraged.
“Nothing’s been accomplished,” she complains. “More schools are closing and I have grandchildren in elementary school and their school is closing down and there’s no other school in the area whatsoever.”
Brown enjoys widespread, if sometimes grudging, respect and a glowing reputation as a collaborator. Naturally, some resist his power at the expense of elected officials. Democratic attorney and activist Terry Bankert also has a long record of public service in Flint. He touts the importance of collaboration, but worries about who Brown is collaborating with and who he’s excluding.
“He’s not publicly bringing the public in,” he says. “I talked to some of the council. He’s not bringing the council in. The consensus he’s reaching…..we’re kind of leery about who that is.”
Bankert fears it’s the city’s business and development elite and that public safety and neighborhoods still aren’t a high enough priority. But even if Bankert’s right, it won’t be because opposing voices like his weren’t heard. Liz Murphy is Brown’s assistant.
“He has an immense capacity for listening to people in the community,” she says. “You’ll come to hear some of our public hearing and sometimes things can get…interesting.”
A recent public meeting explained difficult options for the city’s decaying water system. The gathering gives a few critics a chance to blow off steam.
“The citizens of Flint have to sit up here and listen to your proposals and we have no say-so because we are under martial law under a manager and I’ll be glad when we get our democracy back," a woman says. " That’s my comment.”
Brown recognizes that some seriously oppose his legal authority. But he downplays the resistance as minimal.
“There’s been a small minority of critics,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve had city council, I’ve had organized labor folks say to me, off the microphone, thatthey’re, in large measure, glad that I’m here.”
Mike Brown works with his own hand-picked team. They face daunting challenges. Lawsuits and a referendum against the state’s emergency manager law could put Michigan back under the milder provisions of an earlier statute. But if Brown were to help put out Flint’s fires, many more would consider the law justified. For now, the city offers an interesting glimpse of a conservative policy being liberally implemented.