Scholars Exchange: Municipal Takeovers

Editor’s Note: This post contains a three-part exchange starting with a piece by Ashley E. Nickels, Amanda D. Clark, and Zachary D. Wood about their recent article published in UAR, a response from Louise Seamster, and a response to Seamster from Nickels, Clark, and Wood.

  1. How Municipal Takeovers Reshape Urban Democracy: Comparing the Experiences of Camden, NJ & Flint, MI
  2. Response by Louise Seamster (University of Tennessee-Knoxville)
  3. Response to Louise Seamster by Nickels, Clark, and Wood

How Municipal Takeovers Reshape Urban Democracy: Comparing the Experiences of Camden, NJ & Flint, MI

By Ashley E. Nickels, Amanda D. Clark, and Zachary D. Wood

Municipal takeover policies claim to eschew politics. These policies, which rest on the principle that local government is broken, suspend local democracy in an attempt to fix local fiscal problems. Fear of municipal bankruptcy, economic contagion, and credit downgrades are among the most common motivations for intervening in local municipal affairs. These changes radically rearrange how decisions are made, who has access to decision makers, and, ultimately, who is in power. Many states have adopted or copied municipal takeover policies from each other; as such, when the policies are put in place, we may expect to see similar results or responses from local communities.

We were particularly interested in how the local nonprofit community responds to such interventions. Even in cities not suffering complete economic collapse, other governing challenges have arisen in the last few decades. As cities have struggled in the face of decreasing tax revenues and resources, high capacity nonprofits (HCNP) and other private businesses have filled the gaps, offering services previously provided by the government (Salamon and Toepler 2014; Wolch 1990). In addition, grassroots associations (GA) and activists have engaged to address the negative effects these changes have wrought on city residents. However, these two organizational types, HCNPs and GAs, engage differently in the local power structure; their unique roles impact the way they leverage their power.

We adopted a comparative case study research design, focusing on Camden, New Jersey and Flint, Michigan. We found that the municipal takeover policy design in both states emphasized fiscal austerity and economic development. These goals incentivized the involvement of HCNPs to support and promote a takeover agenda. HCNPs, acting as either a partner with or substitute for local government, benefitted from these policies. Their support was often over objections from residents. As a result, residents used other forms of engagement, including political protest and lawsuits, to resist takeover policies. Grassroots activists in both Camden and Flint resisted changes brought about by the municipal takeover policy at first. However, Flint’s opposition organizations were better organized; so, when the water crisis unfolded, the opposition mobilized. In other words, while nonprofit organizations at all levels eventually conformed to Camden’s new governing regime, Flint’s nonprofit grassroots organizers were well-positioned (with support from within and outside the city) to destabilize the emerging development regime.

Two other important elements of our findings focus on the policy design itself. In Camden, the municipal takeover was linked explicitly to state-provided economic development initiatives tied primarily to the city’s “Eds and Meds”. We argue that this funding served as a lever to co-opt dissent from grassroots associations and activists in Camden.  Conversely, no such funding was available in Flint; so grassroots association organizers were not folded into the governing structure through resource incentives. They instead sought alternative pathways to engagement—often through political protest. As such, when the water crisis unfolded, Flint’s HCNPs quickly disavowed the local governing regime, rendering the city’s emerging development regime unstable.

While it is true that Camden was released from the takeover in 2010 and Flint in 2015, the hundreds of sometimes small and sometimes significant changes that the managers/ COO made under the takeover have lasting effects. The implication of our research is that both policy design and local context matter when considering the impact of municipal takeover on policy opposition. The decisions made by a small cadre of people reverberated throughout each city, setting in motion new political forces. Understanding these effects has important policy implications. As more cities face fiscal emergencies, more states consider the adoption of state intervention policies. Municipal takeovers may help cities avoid bankruptcy; they also have the potential to reshape local governance. And it is important that we understand these changes so that we may make the most informed decisions.

Read the UAR article here.

Response by Louise Seamster (University of Tennessee-Knoxville)

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the authors’ research examining state receivership in Flint, Michigan and Camden, New Jersey. Both cases show how the delegitimation of elected municipal governance coincided with the rise of “high capacity nonprofit” (HCNP) regimes advancing urban development agendas, and how the ostensibly temporary receivership process masked a longer and deeper shift in urban governance. Given the reach and potential impacts of these laws, and the relative lack of research on outcomes of cities under receivership, we urgently need more research addressing recent cases.

First, Nickels, Clark and Wood show local interests shaping the agenda and implementation of receivership. The premise underlying state receivership is that higher-level administration will remove more personal interests from local politics. In practice, receivership eliminates elected officials’ power, tipping the balance toward unelected members of the local urban regime. As the authors note, “the appointed receiver relies not only on the policy tools outlined in the state law, but on local networks to implement the policy” (9). The long rise of nonprofits doing “city work,” from development planning to service provision, has provided a template for receivership.

The authors show this harm to local democracy can occur not just through the temporary city takeover, but through a devaluation of electoral politics. Receivership is a catalyst speeding up existing processes, “by reorganizing government departments, suspending the authority of local elected officials, and further alienating the electorate. These changes radically restructure how decisions are made, who has access to decision makers, and, ultimately, who is in power” (3). Elected government is restructured in a diminished form by receivership—both economically and politically, as municipal funding and “political participation” are diverted to flow through non-governmental actors. I want to know more about what city officials thought of these changes. Often outside actors ignore the upstream economic causes of urban fiscal crisis, instead attributing the budget problems to “bad governance.” In this context, I wonder about references to HCNPs filling a “governing void” or compensating for the non-activity of elected officials. As actors competing with the cities for urban funding, their representation of elected governance as non-governance should be taken with a large grain of salt.

Nickels et al. argue that “unelected officials are making decisions that carry consequences beyond their tenure” (2). Temporary decision-makers are empowered to write budgets and contracts for the post-receivership period, create new organizations, shut down buildings, sell property—and, in Flint, make key decisions about water source. The “crisis period” of receivership, slow to retreat, not only further destabilizes elected governance but legitimizes the outsiders who stepped in. Lawyer Mark Fancher noted last year in Detroit, at an event on Michigan’s emergency manager law, “Emergency management is a legacy—it doesn’t have one.” This restructuring of urban governance affects more than just the cities placed under receivership.  Receivership is not just punitive to certain cities, but is a deterrent to other cities. At the same workshop on emergency management last year, Detroit activist Tom Stephens suggested Michigan’s receivership law needed to be understood as a disciplinary mechanism for all Michigan cities, expected to voluntarily assume austerity to avoid emergency management.

I also want to address Flint’s water crisis in more detail. If Michigan truly believed that Flint’s poor governance had produced fiscal crisis and required state oversight, it’s surprising the state rushed to end emergency management just as Flint faced the exponentially-larger problem of the water crisis. I see the Flint Water Crisis as an outcome of Flint’s receivership, and feel it should be evaluated as such. And it may have been the crisis itself, more than grassroots activists, that destabilized the nascent nonprofit regime. Just as Michigan conveniently returned Flint to local control once the state started to understand the scope of the water crisis, I find it hard to imagine local nonprofits and foundations wanting to be seen taking “control” (and with it, accountability) over this situation either. Elected officials may have served as a convenient scapegoat.

This leads to my main question: why were these cities, and other cities taken under receivership, are especially vulnerable to takeover and local disenfranchisement? The authors do not discuss the majority-nonwhite racial makeup of Flint and Camden as a potential factor, but we know that cities in Michigan with high black populations were much more likely to be taken over by an emergency manager. In 2014, half the black population in the state had no local democracy (compared to around 2% of whites). My research indicates the perceived “problem” with these cities is as much or more with non-white governance as with non-white population. It is not surprising that these entities’ actions are “lost in translation” or perceived hostilely, or even deployed as governmental scapegoats, by majority-white county and state-level offices. We can see evidence for this by looking at the “negative case,” comparing the experience of emergency management for the few majority-white cities put under Michigan receivership. Allen Park, over ninety percent white, has probably not had the same long-term structural changes to its governance described in this paper. It is possible that Allen Park was less changed by emergency management than Saginaw and Ypsilanti, two cities with large black populations that were not taken over, given the use of emergency management as a threat. Further, there is much less likely to be a nonprofit alliance ready in the wings to take over in a white city. Both emergency management and the rise of HCNPs in “struggling” cities are part of a longer story of eroding black municipal governance that still needs to be told.

Response to Louise Seamster by Nickels, Clark, and Wood

We would like to thank Dr. Louise Seamster for her insightful comments on our paper regarding municipal takeovers in Camden, New Jersey and Flint, Michigan. We appreciate the opportunity to address some of the concerns raised.

First, we agree that the water crisis was the result of decisions made under the municipal takeover and an overreliance on neoliberal policies that put profits over people. However, as we argue in the UAR article, grassroots activists were integral to destabilizing the community development regime in Flint. While the crisis may have been caused by decisions made under municipal takeover, Flint’s burgeoning activist community played an important role in calling attention to the problem, which ultimately required HCNPs to distance themselves from the EMs and redirect their efforts toward crisis response.

Second, Seamster rightly points out that the cities facing receivership, particularly in Michigan and New Jersey, tend to be predominantly Black cities. The racial dimensions of municipal takeover are an important issue that deserves more attention in the scholarship, and is only briefly examined in this particular piece. However, Nickels and Clark (2019, forthcoming) address this issue more thoroughly in their article on Flint’s nonprofit response to the water crisis, specifically.  In that piece, we illustrate how legacies of structural racism inform the framing strategies of both grassroots activists and high-capacity nonprofits (HCNPs) in the area. Grassroots activists framed the crisis and the states’ response as another example in the long history of racism in Flint, while HCNPs were eager to adopt a “color-blind” approach to addressing the crisis. We illustrate that, while both HCNPs and grassroots groups framed their statements in terms of helping the community recover, the narratives surrounding the crisis unfolded along two distinct paths—HCNPS focusing on the technical responses and moving forward, while grassroots activists focused on identifying root causes and calling for intersectional solutions (e.g. solutions that recognized people were differently affected by the crisis due their intersecting identities).

We appreciate Dr. Seamster’s incisive comments on the paper and her work on this important area of research. We would be remiss if we did not encourage readers to check out her work on the takeover of Benton Harbor (Seamster, 2019).

Author Biographies

Ashley E. Nickels, PhD, is assistant professor of political science at Kent State University. Dr. Nickels’ research interests include urban politics and governance, as well as grassroots and community-based organizations. Dr. Nickels is the co-editor of the book, Community Development and Public Administration Theory: Promoting Democratic Principles to Improve Communities (2018). Her work has also be published in State and Local Government Review, Risks, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy, and Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change. Twitter: @aenickelsphd

Amanda D. Clark, PhD, is currently researching social movements, community development, and the U.S. policy process. Her dissertation examined the framing strategies of a prominent U.S. anti-human trafficking coalition. Dr. Clark has co-authored book chapters on the nonviolent dynamics of the 1960 Nashville student sit-in campaign and on community control in local organizing and development policy. Her work has been published in academic outlets including Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change and International Area Studies Review.

Zachary D. Wood is an assistant teaching professor and the director of urban studies and community development at Rutgers University in Camden. His research interests include issues of urban poverty and social change through civic engagement and political advocacy. Zachary’s most recent research explores the role of non-profits as advocates for social change. He is currently finalizing his PhD in Public Affairs at Rutgers University, with a specialization in Community Development.

Louise Seamster, PhD, is an incoming Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Her dissertation explored emergency management and urban development in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Her ongoing research explores racial politics, debt, infrastructural inequality, and racial progress. Her work has been published in outlets including Contexts, Du Bois Review, Sociological Theory, and Social Currents.


Nickels, Ashley E. and Amanda Clark. Forthcoming. “Framing the Flint Water Crisis: Interrogating Local Nonprofit Sector Responses.” Administrative Theory & Praxis.

Salamon, Lester M., and Stefan Toepler. 2014. “Government–Nonprofit Cooperation: Anomaly or Necessity?” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 26: 2155–77.

Seamster, Lousie. 2018. “When Democracy Disappears: Emrgency Management in Benton Harbor.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race [online first]

Wolch, J. 1990. “The Shadow State: Government and Voluntary Sector in Transition.” New York: The Foundation Centre.

Image Source: Fred Johnson Maps