BENTON HARBOR, MI — Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris said state officials are in the process of forcing him out of office, bending to pressure from a group of high-power political adversaries of his.
Harris said he recently received confirmation of the decision to remove him via the state treasurer's office, although he still is not sure when he will be required to step down.
Harris said the move was sparked by a group of his adversaries, who convinced the state to remove him for "political" reasons. Although Harris would not disclose the individuals' identities or provide more detail, he said he has evidence that five individuals had a meeting in January with state officials to discuss the possibility of an emergency manager change in Benton Harbor.
"Knowing what I know, there's no question that it's political," Harris said during an interview on Wednesday with the MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette about the future of the state's role in governing Benton Harbor.
Harris said he did not wish to share any more information about those involved, except they are powerful community leaders in the Benton Harbor area. He said he did not want to stretch an already tense relationship between himself and the unnamed leaders by creating a media controversy.
"I just don't need to create any more tension or animosity," Harris said. "If that's the way the game is played, so be it."
A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder wouldn't comment on Harris' statement that he is being forced out.
"There is no set decision or timetable for any change at this point in time," Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said. "We're currently looking at the next steps."
Under Public Act 4, the governor appoints and removes emergency managers from a community.
Harris' statements came the same day the Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments on a case involving the validity of a petition aimed at repealing the emergency manager law. The hearing drew more than 200 protesters in Lansing, both in the court room and outside on the lawn.
Proponents of the law are attempting to block the measure from the November ballot by claiming the petitions were printed in a smaller font than is required by state election law.
Harris, who served as Detroit's auditor general from 1995 to 2005, said he will officially announce his departure when a new emergency manager is ready to take over.
Harris has been Benton Harbor's emergency manager since 2010, and faced public criticism from Democrats as controversy surrounding the law grew.
Harris said he did not know exactly when he would be leaving, but said it would be within "the next few months," or sooner if he finds a new job. To his knowledge, a successor has not yet been chosen.
"It's like a judge's ruling, it's like a referee's ruling," he said. "You accept it and move on."
State Treasurer Andy Dillon said on Tuesday he expects Benton Harbor to be back under local control within six months. But Harris said despite the progress he has made, it might take three more years for the city to pay off its roughly $2 million in outstanding liabilities.
Harris said he is proud of Benton Harbor's progress.
"There's nothing the (city) commissioners or naysayers can say to offset all the joy that people have expressed to me," Harris said.