A Troubling Power Grab from the State
Between its efforts to scrub religious heritage from the public square, the ACLU does occasionally address issues of wider concern, and I agree with its Rhode Island head on the issue of the state’s placing Central Falls in receivership:
Brown’s problem with the receivership law is Article XIII of the state Constitution, which concerns home rule for cities and towns. It says the General Assembly can pass laws that affect city and town governments, “but which shall not affect the form of government of any city or town …”
Stripping the mayor of his authority to govern does just that, Brown said.
Speaking for Department of Revenue leader Rosemary Booth Gallogly, spokeswoman Amy Kempe argued that the receivership law is legitimate, in this case, because the elected leaders of the city requested the takeover, but that argument skirts the point. After all, a politically connected mayor shouldn’t have the power to ask the state to eliminate his city’s governing council, and a city council shouldn’t be able to have the state make the mayor a dictator for life. More generally (and less extreme), it should require the explicit consent of the governed for their elected leaders to change their offices, even if they’re admitting themselves incompetent rather than declaring themselves all-powerful. For those examples not to be included, the state constitution would require a process — preferably involving a popular vote, at some level — for a city or town to make such requests.
Following this conclusion, one might be tempted to suggest that the appropriate action of the state is to allow Central Falls voters to drive the city into the ground, if they so choose, and hopefully thereby learn their lesson. That Moreau won his office by such a large margin suggests that they’ve got much learning to do. But here’s the problem with that approach:
[The judiciary’s appointment of a receiver with powers closer to bankruptcy proceedings] alarmed the nation’s bond-rating agencies, which quickly demoted Central Falls’ bond rating to junk-bond status and warned state officials that if it was that easy for a Rhode Island municipality to file bankruptcy, they might start downgrading all Rhode Island municipal debt to reflect that risk.
That is: The incompetence of a particular municipality’s electorate could affect every other city and town in Rhode Island. I’d suggest, though, that this is a dangerous frame of mind. Bond raters are certain to prefer strong, centralized governments with the power to force large numbers of people to do whatever suits the collective. If anybody needed one, here’s another indication of the (sometimes unavoidable) evil of debt.
Brown doesn’t affirm the ACLU’s intention to challenge the law and, in fact, expresses puzzlement over who would have standing to take the state to court on the matter. It seems to me that any resident of a Rhode Island city or town should have such standing. It’s our constitution.