HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) – A federal judge tossed a lawsuit that claimed the governor of Pennsylvania violated the U.S. Constitution when he amended a law that governs how the state assists cities and other municipalities in financial distress.
The Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, alternately known as “Act 47,” is a statutory mechanism through which financially distressed municipalities in Pennsylvania can request technical and financial assistance from the state government.
In October 2010, the City of Harrisburg filed an application with the Pennsylvania Department of Community of Economic Development, seeking a determination that the city was a “financially distressed municipality” the mandatory first step toward its entering the Act 47 program.
According to the complaint, after the City of Harrisburg’s application was granted and it was admitted into the financial assistance program, the Department of Community of Economic Development presented the city council with a recovery plan.
However, by a 4-3 vote, the city council rejected the plan, causing an abrupt end to the state assistance. Months later, the complaint states, Governor Thomas W. Corbett amended Act 47 in what the plaintiffs contend were “several critical ways.”
For instance, the complaint said, Corbett Corbett authorized himself, and any future governor, to “designate financially distressed municipalities upon consideration of several statutorily-enumerated factors and, at his discretion, to make a declaration of fiscal emergency.”
The amendment also allows for a receiver to be appointed to the city.
“In such an event, Act 47 Amendments authorize the Governor, or his designee, to collect funds on behalf of the city and its authorities, to obtain emergency financial aid, to enter into contracts and agreements on behalf of the city, and to exercise any other power necessary to ‘ensure the provision of vital and necessary services’ to the city.”
In October 2011, Governor Corbett exercised the authority vested in hum under the amended Act, declaring a fiscal emergency for the City of Harrisburg and appointing fellow defendant David Unkovic receiver for the city.
Unkovic filed a recovery plan for the city in February 2012, and that plan was preliminarily approved by Commonwealth Court Judge Bonnie J. Leadbetter on March 9, 2012.
Shortly thereafter, Reverend Earl L. Harris, formal mayoral candidate Nevin Mindlin and Harrisburg firefighters’ union president Eric Jenkins sued, seeking an injunction preventing the defendants from enforcing Act 47.
The plaintiffs contend that “Act 47, as amended, and the Recovery Plan operate in tandem to deprive them, and on a larger scale, the entire citizenry of Harrisburg, of their valuable constitutionally-protected rights by diluting the effectiveness of their municipal votes.”
Upon review of the complaint, U.S. District Judge John Jones III wrote, “Candidly, we are struck by the paltriness of the evidence offered by the plaintiffs to support their standing argument.”
“Plaintiffs’ right to vote for their municipal representatives remains fully intact, and further, the plaintiffs failed to present evidence that their individual votes are in any way unequal to or less effective than those of other voters in Harrisburg’s municipal elections or that they have suffered any other actual and individuals harms as a result of the Act 47 Amendments,” Jones continued.
“We cannot but conclude that the Plaintiffs’ standing arguments and entire cause of action are nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to litigate, on behalf of their municipal government, a case which Harrisburg’s City Council and Mayor quite obviously do not wish the city to initiate. It speaks volumes that entirely missing from the plaintiffs’ arguments is any mention of the undisputed fact that the City of Harrisburg has itself declined to challenge any aspect of Act 47, the Amendments, or the Recovery Plan. The critical point remains that the legislation challenged by the plaintiffs does not limit the rights of the plaintiffs, or even the rights of the citizens of Harrisburg at large, but instead limits the rights and authority of the municipality itself,’ he wrote.
After admonishing the plaintiffs in a footnote for trying to sensationalize the case with claims of race and class-based issues, Jones continued, “Permitting the plaintiffs’ to proceed with this lawsuit would effectively give the green light to any citizen aggrieved with his or her municipality’s decision, considered or otherwise, not to challenge state legislation binding upon it.”
“Floodgates would open, and potentially frivolous lawsuits could abound. Judicial dockets would overflow … the lines between state and federal judicial and legislative branches would thus blur and ultimately blend, and democratic policy and political authority would be entirely undermined,” he wrote, concluding, “We will thus deny the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction, grant the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings and dismiss this action with prejudice.”