Benton Harbor Commissioners want state help on legal fees

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Before a packed room Monday night, Benton Harbor City Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution it hopes will help with legal fees relating to when emergency managers controlled the city.

The resolution asks the Michigan Treasury Department to take full financial responsibility for administrative decisions made by emergency managers in charge of the city from April 2010 to March 2013. Commissioners also hope to shield city residents from potential settlements and court costs.

City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad, who introduced the resolution, said city should not shoulder any repercussion from the emergency managers.

“They acted in certain cases ‒ irrationally and illegally,” Muhammad said. “As a result, the bag is being left at the door of the residents. I know the city does not have the money. I think it is only just that the state of Michigan intercede and take full responsibility of those costs.”

Mayor James Hightower and Commissioner Duane Seats weighed in with support for the resolution.

Hightower said he met with officials from the Treasury Department last week and the resolution was discussed.

“The emergency managers were sent into the city to eliminate the financial crisis, not to exacerbate it,” Hightower said. “(The state) does need to accept responsibility. I let them know that and they are going to set up a meeting with commissioners so we can dialogue and evaluate. In terms of this resolution, I support it.”

Seats said if legal fees are not covered by the state, Benton Harbor would be “put in the red.”

“If this happens, they are going to ask you to raise for something ‒ a millage or a tax ‒ to pay for the lawsuit that was not your city government’s fault,” Seats said. “It was because of somebody the state sent down here supposedly in the best interest of the people.”

The resolution was forwarded to the City Commission by the city’s Legislative Committee, which Muhammad chairs. It cites two legal settlements the city has already paid.

In one settlement, the commissioners agreed in May 2014 to pay former Crystal Springs Cemetery Superintendent Tony Benhart more than $75,000 to settle litigation.

Benhart was put on administrative leave in November 2011 and his contract was not renewed.

The City Commission agreed in the second settlement, also in May 2014, to pay just over $75,000 to its former building inspector, Walter Martlew.

The money was for work he had in progress when former Emergency Manager Joseph Harris terminated his contract in January 2011.

Muhammad said there are other court cases winding through the legal system that could cost the city big money. Those include lawsuits brought against the city by three former public safety workers ‒ on-leave Public Safety Director Roger Lange and former officers Robert O’Brien and Daniel Unruh.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@thehp.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Aug. 4, 2015)

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