Power, Participation, and Protest in Flint, Michigan

Unpacking the Policy Paradox of Municipal Takeovers

Ashley E. Nickels
American Society for Public Administration Section on Democracy and Social Justice Book Award, 2019
American Political Science Association Robert A. Dahl Award, 2020
Outstanding Academic Title, Choice, 2020
Book Cover

PB: $32.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1567-7
Publication: Oct 19

HC: $94.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1566-0
Publication: Oct 19

Ebook: $32.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1568-4
Publication: Oct 19

272 pages
5.25 x 8.5
11 tables, 4 figs., 5 halftones, 1 maps

The policy history of, implementation of, and reaction to Flint’s municipal takeovers

Read the Introduction (pdf).


When the 2011 municipal takeover in Flint, Michigan placed the city under state control, some supported the intervention while others saw it as an affront to democracy. Still others were ambivalent about what was supposed to be a temporary disruption. However, the city’s fiscal emergency soon became a public health emergency—the Flint Water Crisis—that captured international attention.

But how did Flint’s municipal takeovers, which suspended local representational government, alter the local political system? In Power, Participation, and Protest in Flint, Michigan, Ashley Nickels addresses the ways residents, groups, and organizations were able to participate politically—or not—during the city’s municipal takeovers in 2002 and 2011. She explains how new politics were created as organizations developed, new coalitions emerged and evolved, and people’s understanding of municipal takeovers changed.

In walking readers through the policy history of, implementation of, and reaction to Flint’s two municipal takeovers, Nickels highlights how the ostensibly apolitical policy is, in fact, highly political.


This book is so much more than a riveting study of the Flint, Michigan, emergency takeover and water crisis. It’s also a study of authoritarian politics masquerading as emergency management. It’s a study of why ‘technical’ and ‘managerial’ problems are always political and why ‘temporary’ solutions always create enduring changes. Nickels makes Flint a lab experiment in emergency powers with tremendous relevance to the nation at large.”—Deborah Stone, Professor Emerita, Brandeis University

A perceptive case study of the fraught municipal-state politics that ‘poisoned’ a city, Power, Participation, and Protest in Flint, Michigan keenly uncovers and illuminates the civic damage that can occur when states disempower cities and disregard local democracy via ‘emergency management.’ Derived from in-depth process tracing and careful field research, Nickels’s findings, implications, and recommendations deserve the attention of scholars studying or concerned about the (mis)use of state government to control the affairs of cities in the twenty-first century.”—Michael Leo Owens, Emory University, author of God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America

In this fine-grained account of municipal takeover in Flint, Ashley Nickels elucidates the implicit politics of ostensibly apolitical, managerial approaches to governance and highlights how state agendas interact with local power dynamics to advance elite interests. Nickels’s account is also admirably sensitive to the role community activists have played in challenging municipal takeover and fighting to keep democracy alive. Anyone interested in Flint’s recent history and the predicament of struggling municipalities within the American federal system would do well to read this book.”—Benjamin Pauli, Assistant Professor of Social Science at Kettering University and author of Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis

"(A) case study on how Flint, Michigan’s city politics has caused change, either unwanted or wanted, for the entire state.... Scholars who are interested in not only Flint, Michigan but are also interested in city politics would find this an intriguing read."
Communication Booknotes Quarterly

"Through its combination of interviews and applied political science theories, this book provides novel insights into how the Flint community reacted to the municipal takeover at multiple levels. Among the insightful takeaways from this volume are that municipal takeovers produce a myriad of consequences, including power redistribution that benefits prominent local elites, reduced access among residents to key decision makers, increased distrust of officials, heightened racial tensions, and sometimes serious threats to public health."
—Journal of Legal Medicine

" (A) timely examination.... Nickels (does) an excellent job of revealing the political nature of municipal takeovers and how problems posed as technical or managerial are political. She also engages the voices and perspectives of not just public administrators, but also the citizens and activists impacted. This work is a model for other public administration scholars who must do better to consider the context and paradoxes of problems caused by political, social, economic, racist, or other structures."
Journal of Public and Nonprofit AffairsCommunication Booknotes Quarterly

"(A) compact accessible blend of investigative research and reporting backed by details delineated via charts, appendices, and copious notes and references—all of which I found helpful and enlightening as the backstory of the narrative.... I also found the book’s scholarship refreshing in an age when an official spokesman for the leader of the free world declares that 'the truth is not truth.' Nickels speaks truth to that bad baloney, which is exactly what true scholarship should do."
East Village Magazine

“Nickels carefully analyzes the competing values inherent in a municipal takeover—the ‘market’ (rational, efficient, and managed by ‘objective’ decision- makers) versus the ‘polis’ (equality, equity, and access to participation in a democracy)—and shifts the conversation to one about urban governance rather than urban government…. While filled with detailed description and analysis of policy, the book is accessible and clearly written…. (It) contributes to a growing body of scholarship that helps us understand the complicated history and the present of Flint, which may well be the canary in the coal mine for the future of a more democratic society."
—Contemporary Sociology

" At its core, this is an analysis of urban politics and its consequences.... As a political science analysis of power and policy, this is an important book, and a good case study.... This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of how policies are formed to address the problems faced by cities in decline.... This is a very accessible book tackling a very important problem, and it deserves the attention of scholars and practitioners of municipal finance."
-- Journal of Urban Affairs

"In this superb book, Nickels tackles questions that are fundamental to democratic governance at the local level. Using the case of Flint, Michigan, Nickels analyzes the causes and consequences of state takeovers of municipal governance. She documents the severity of Flint's fiscal shocks, the speed with which they debilitated the city, and local actors' (often acrimonious) ways of facing these shocks. In a thorough review of the literature, Nickels reveals that municipal takeovers are often portrayed as necessary to avoid bankruptcy.... This is a well-written, accessible study of local governance. Summing Up: Essential. All readers."
— Choice

" (A) meticulous case study of the 2002 and 2011 municipal takeovers in Flint, Michigan and their resulting grassroots mobilization.... Her detailed analysis successfully highlights the tension that plays out between the supposedly rational, market-based interests of the state government and the substantive, justice-based concerns of the local community.... This book provides a good introduction to the operations of local governments, as well as an excellent discussion of Flint municipal politics.... The strengths of this book are Nickels’ clear mastery of her case and the rich detail of her analysis, lending credence to both her conclusions and policy recommendations."
— Mobilization

"The book is worthwhile reading and will serve undergraduate and graduate public policy classes well, as illustrative readings showing how prominent policy theories can be applied. Nickels adds importantly to the small literature examining how policy feedback affects democracy and participation.... When environmental and water utility agencies’ science is falsely branded as biased or irrelevant, democratic policy making becomes more remote. Nickels’s book is an important reminder of why these issues matter."
— Perspectives on Politics

"Ashley Nickels’s case study of Flint’s experience under emergency management from 2011 to 2015 is one of the only full‐length treatments of Michigan’s emergency manager (EM) law.... Nickels’s policy recommendations are important: ending the practice of state‐appointed emergency managers, shifting to a prevention model addressing root causes of a fiscal crisis, and fixing the state’s revenue sharing program to restore the more equitable formula. Overall, Nickels provides a valuable record of this historical moment."
—Political Science Quarterly

Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures

Introduction • The Politics of Municipal Takeovers: Power, Participation, and Protest
1. Why Cities Go Broke and Flint’s Financial Collapse
2. Saving Cities from Themselves: How States Respond to Urban Fiscal Crises
3. The Policy Paradox of Municipal Takeover: How the Policy Creates Politics
4. Contextualizing the Flint Case: Race, Class, and Contentious Politics
5. The “Development Agenda”: Implementing Municipal Takeover in Flint
6. From Development Agenda to Development Regime: Allocating Benefits and Burdens and Interpreting Winners and Losers
7. Defending Democracy: Responding to the Municipal Takeover
8. From Fiscal Emergency to Public Health Emergency: Differing Responses to the Flint Water Crisis • Co-authored with Amanda D. Clark
Conclusion • Summary Findings, Implications, and Recommendations

Appendix 1 • Research Design and Methodology
Appendix 2
Appendix 3

About the Author(s)

Ashley E. Nickels is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kent State University. She is the co-editor of Community Development and Public Administration Theory: Promoting Democratic Principles to Improve Communities.