That control could be taken away under Michigan's year-old emergency manager law if Republican Gov. Rick Snyder decides Detroit is unable to haul itself out of a $200 million financial abyss. But the law — designed to improve the fiscal conditions of struggling public entities — has become the focus of lawsuits, a petition drive and claims of racism.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers has said it unfairly targets minority communities. Conyers was joined in December at a Detroit church by civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, promising protests and possible civil disobedience against Public Act 4.
This past week, hundreds marched to Snyder's home in a gated Washtenaw County community on the national observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to protest the law. Signed by Snyder last March, the law allows managers to toss out union contracts to help balance the books and usurp control from elected leadership. It replaced and repealed Public Act 72 of 1990.
Opponents continue to gather voter signatures to try to force an election aimed at repealing Public Act 4. If enough signatures are collected to make the ballot, the law could be suspended while waiting for the November election.
Meanwhile, a state-appointed review team is trying to determine if a financial emergency exists in Detroit. The team is expected to report back to Snyder by late February. The governor then will decide whether or not to place an emergency manager in Michigan's largest city.
"Once they get Detroit, I'm thinking 50 percent of the people of color in the state will be under an emergency manager," Benton Harbor pastor Edward Pinkney said. "They're saying, 'If you can't control your city, we're going to do it and we're going to stay in control.'"
Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Ecorse and Flint have emergency managers, as does the 66,000-student Detroit Public Schools.
About 89 percent of Benton Harbor's residents are black. That number is 46 percent in Ecorse, 52 percent in Pontiac and nearly 57 percent in Flint.
More than 82 percent of Detroit is black, compared with 14 percent across the state.
"(Though) the law itself may be facially neutral, it would seem that it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion, as the impacted jurisdictions have very high proportions of African Americans and other minorities," Conyers wrote in a December letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
The longtime Democratic congressman asked Holder to review, monitor and "if necessary, challenge the application" of the law.
Conyers believes Public Act 4 may violate the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution because it allows emergency managers to terminate union contracts. The law also appears to violate the Voting Rights Act and a Constitutional provision providing for a republican form of government in the individual states, Conyers wrote.
"It's only an issue for those who are playing the race card," said Joe Harris, Benton Harbor's manager since 2010 and Detroit's former chief financial officer.
Harris has ordered firefighter cross-training for police officers, which reduced public-safety costs by a third. He also negotiated new collective-bargaining agreements with many unions, forcing Benton Harbor employees to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums and contribute 10 percent of their wages to pensions.
"In my opinion, if you simply look at the facts, i.e., the criteria set forth in the law that governs the appointment of emergency managers, there is nothing left to talk about," said Harris, who also has ordered elected commissioners not to speak on behalf of the city.
Snyder appointed Lou Schimmel in September to oversee Pontiac's finances. In November, Schimmel fired the city's clerk, attorney and director of public works.
"Public Act 4, which everyone is so critical of, allows us to accelerate the process," Schimmel said. "I have much greater abilities to deal with the issues."
"I'm strictly a guy that looks at all the numbers — whatever got it there, what happened," said Schimmel, who also was emergency financial manager in Ecorse. "There's been horrible mismanagement. I'm certainly not going to tie it to race."
Color can be a political powder keg, and even the chair of the group behind the petition drive isn't ready to lay that kind of blame on Public Act 4.
Poor socio-economic conditions are the primary reason why some cities have received emergency managers and others haven't, according to Michigan Forward's Brandon Jessup.
"The communities that are facing or are under emergency financial managers have high concentrations of unemployment, higher levels of poverty, and yes, show a disproportionate impact of this on people of color," Jessup said. "It shows our communities don't have the amount of economic access. To say this legislation is racially targeting communities of color, I wouldn't say that."
Snyder said this past week in his State of the State address that the cities receiving emergency managers have had population losses. Detroit lost about a quarter-million people between 2000 and 2010. Flint lost 22,500, while Pontiac saw its population drop by 6,800.
The much smaller Benton Harbor lost about 1,100 people and now has a population of just over 10,000.
Few Michigan cities are as disenfranchised as Benton Harbor, a former manufacturing hub located in the southwestern part of the state along Lake Michigan.
Between 2005 and 2009, the median household income was less than $17,500 per year, and 48 percent of the city's residents lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.
Statewide, the median household income was $48,700.
"Jobs. That would fix about 75 percent of the problems," Pinkney said.