Politics of a poisoned city: the Flint water crisis

By now most of America knows about the Flint water crisis — when it started, how it happened, and the response (or lack thereof) by the Snyder administration.

What needs to be discussed now, from a political standpoint, is why it happened and what happens next.

First a quick recap of the events that led to the current situation.

On April 25, 2014 Flint, under the supervision of Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, officially switched from using the Detroit pipeline to the Flint River as a water source. A press release from that time dismisses concerns over the safety of the water.

“To dispel myths and promote the truth about the Flint River and its viability as a residential water source, there have been numerous studies and tests conducted on its water by several different independent organizations… Flint water is safe to drink.” — Press Release dated April 25, 2014

The switch was made to save some money — and it did, around $1 million to $2 million, according to emails released by Gov. Rick Snyder recently.

But that money was only saved temporarily. In October of that year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released a response to a Flint advisory to boil water, claiming that cold weather, aging pipes, and the city’s population decline were responsible for the advisory. 

“The switch over to use Flint water has spurred most of the controversy and contention. The DEQ and DCH feel that some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into political football” — an email dated Sept. 25, 2015, from the governor’s chief of staff.

Tensions began to rise over time, as residents of Flint began to experience foul smells and rashes coming from the water. People began carrying jugs of brown water to meetings.

“Given the very high lead levels found at one home, and the preflushing happening in Flint, I’m worried that the whole town may have much higher lead levels than the compliance results indicated, since they are using preflushing ahead of their compliance sampling” —  a memo from EPA expert Miguel Del Toral in February 2015 which basically stated that the state was testing in a way which could severely understate the levels of lead in the water.

“It appears DEQ staffers have essentially downplayed or ignored warning signs from EPA’s water expert, Miguel Del Toral… his email dated 2 months earlier on Feb. 27, to Jennifer Crooks and Mike Prysby, seems to lay out exactly what has come to pass…” — internal memo dated October 18, 2015

An extremely long story made very short: Snyder’s administration finally made a statement of admittance and apology on Dec. 29, 2015:

“I know many Flint citizens are angry and want more than an apology. That’s why I’m taking the actions today to ensure a culture of openness and trust. We’ve already allocated $10 million to test the water, distribute water filters, and help in other ways.”

The $1 million to $2 million saved in 2014 turned into $10 million now to clean up the mess (Not including the estimated $1.5 billion needed to permanently solve the problem).

As you may recall, the switch was performed under Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley’s orders. So, the question remains: Why was this allowed to happen? 

MCCC’s Political Science professor Joanna Sabo offered her assessment.

“When you put an emergency financial manager in charge of a city, especially one as large as Flint, you are taking the control away from the people of the city and you are giving it to managers who are hired by the governor’s office,” she said.

“So it’s a little bit difficult for accountability to occur, because you have one person who is making decisions and doing a lot of these things to try and fix the city, but you don’t have a lot of people giving input. So there are a lot of single-minded decisions that came down and I think the governor has apologized for some of those.”

Sabo said emergency managers are used when a city is mismanaged by its elected officials.

“The state takes them over and appoints a manager to run the affairs of the city,” she said.

“If there is a mayor, that person is no longer in charge, if there is a city manager they are no longer in charge. And then the emergency financial manager can hire staff, he can hire within the city, he can hire private consultants to try to make some tough decisions to get the city out of debt and being able to take care of itself again.”

In theory it makes sense. A bad local government gets replaced by good “emergency manager,” until the locals are ready to take care of themselves again. But, there are still problems.

“Unfortunately, sometimes you have people coming in with no knowledge of the community, or the city that they are assigned to,” Sabo said. “Or there are some political favors that are made and then mistakes are made — that’s what happened with Flint.”

The emergency manager system can  tear at the very fabric of our democracy.

“I’ve never been in favor of the emergency financial manager process.” Dr. Sabo said

“I believe that democracy starts at the local level; whether it’s a school board or a city, or any place that has a problem. If their elected officials get that city into a dire situation, the city has to deal with it and the citizens should have to deal with it. Then they learn to pay better attention to who they elect.”

So the $1.5 billion, city poisoning mistake happened all because of an anti-democratic law that gave one man unlimited power. Please tell us this doesn’t happen often.

“It’s a law in Michigan that has been challenged by a few cities. Detroit’s been under one, Pontiac has been under one, Flint has been under one… there have been other cities that have met similar fates,” Sabo said.

That isn’t promising but remember,  this all traces back to the top. The emergency manager law was passed by Gov.  Snyder himself, who will likely not be returning to politics anytime soon.

“Rick Snyder is trying to leave on a positive note, I have a little inside knowledge on this, and I will tell you that he’s pulling the financial manager, or at least there’s a rumor — I have to say it’s a rumor, that he’s pulling the financial manager from Pontiac, so he can show that Pontiac was a success story. They’re ready to stand on their feet again. So he might use that on his way out to say ‘Look, it doesn’t always work so bad, it works over here.’ … I think any further ambitions in politics are dashed for him, I really do,” she said

So there’s some good news. But, all of you asking for Snyder’s arrest may want to put down your pitchforks.

“He may be able to be sued as a person,” Sabo said. “I don’t think he can face criminal charges at this point.

“If there was a cover up, and there’s been an allusion to that, that’s a different story. If there was something hidden or something illegal, or fraudulent, then yes.”

She said enough isn’t known about the details of what Synder and his aides knew and when they knew it to determine whether there was fraud involved.

“Obviously, the decision was made to try to save some money, but, they ignored people’s complaints and that I think is a problem,” Sabo said.

“I just don’t think we can go and say criminal at this point. I think there is ignorance, lack of qualification, bad decision making, but you find that not just in government but in industries too.”

#arrestgovsnyder may need to be put on hold until someone checks a few law books. However, considering the recent issues of race that have been cropping up all over America, and the fact that Flint is 57 percent African American, there have to some be racial implications. Right?

Dr. Sabo doesn’t think so.

“I mean, I could be wrong, but there’s obviously people who want to say, ‘If this was a white community, they would have been listened to more. They would have been treated better,’” she said.

“I believe that’s possible, but I don’t think that what happened in Flint should be turned into an argument about race issues.”   

When it comes to a national level, Sabo said she doesn’t see it being used as more than an arguing point for Democrats.

“I think it’s going to be used in this upcoming election, and then it’s going to fizzle out,” Sabo said.

I think the issue here is an anti-democratic law was passed and gave the wrong people too much power. Political ego led to a city of poisoned children. The whole point of democracy is to avoid situations like this.

Snyder’s use of emergency managers limits democracy, which is not ok.

Unfortunately, between #arrestgovsnyder and Democrats using this incident for political gain and not much else, I worry that the lessons that needed to be learned are being ignored.

Let’s hope whoever’s next in the governor’s chair gets rid of the emergency manager system — before something like this happens again.

The human side of this crisis.