Lessons From Flint
Flint, Michigan has seen better days. With the loss of major employers and a dwindling tax base, it is saddled with a decaying infrastructure, failing institutions and blighted neighborhoods. The few who remain are unable to leave, prisoners of their own community. To make matters worse, Flint now faces a new challenge caused by its own Governor, Rick Snyder.
In 2011, the Snyder administration took control of the city, placing the entire municipality in state receivership. Since then the finances, as well as all other material aspects of municipal governance have been controlled by four emergency managers appointed by and under the direct control of the Governor.
Prior to the state takeover Flint drew its water from the City of Detroit’s water system. In April 2014, in an alleged attempt to save money, the state switched the water supply to the Flint River. However, the river has a well known reputation for nastiness, often containing bacterial contamination and the disinfectant used to kill the bacteria causes a chemical reaction. http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/18/us/flint-michigan-water-crisis-five-things/index.html.
Residents soon experienced discolored, odorous and otherwise foul water emanating from their taps. They further noticed their children developing rashes and other health related maladies.
A General Motors engine plant in Flint stopped using the water after it eroded its engine parts as did a local hospital due to damaged instruments. A university quickly followed suit, setting up its own filtering systems and switching to bottled drinking water. Citizen complaints followed with many bringing jugs of brownish water to meetings and events.
But instead of addressing the problem, the Snyder administration ignored and dismissed the resident’s legitimate concerns. It belittled those who raised the issue and when possible, pointed the finger of blame at local government.
In a memo dated February 2015, state officials down played the problem and spoke of initial hiccups. It is nothing, the water is not an imminent threat to public health, and folks in Flint are concerned about the aesthetics of taste, smell and color as the primary complaints. the memo said, as if foul drinking water should not be questioned. A memo of September 25, 2015, from the Governor’s Chief of Staff was equally dismissive.
Yet another top aide to the Governor referred to people raising questions about the water as an anti-everything group. Worrisome findings about lead poisoning by a concerned pediatrician were dismissed as data in quotes and two state agencies responsible for health and environmental regulations opined that some in Flint were turning the very sensitive issue of children exposed to lead into a political football.
It was not until late in 2015 that state officials conceded that the city was in the midst of a major public health emergency. See http://www.nytimes.com2016/01/21/us/flint-michigan-lead-water-crisis.htm? What then does Flint teach us?
We first note the Governor’s reckless pursuit of ideology. From the days of Ronald Reagan, conservative ideology has held that government is not the solution, government is the problem. Thus, public policy initiatives designed to assist the disenfranchised are deemed as both wasteful and counterproductive.
Conservatives further believe that only conservative ideology provides solutions to the persistent problems affecting minorities and the poor. If only we would just give conservatism a chance they complain. If only we would stop being thralls of liberal Democrats who keep us on the plantation they argue.
However, the problem with the overzealous pursuit of ideology is that ideology trumps all. Facts, compassion and common sense simply don’t apply. All that matters is that the particular philosophy prevail. Hence, the Governor‘s sole focus on money, elevating dollars over the welfare of the very people he was obligated to serve and protect. Ergo, the state takeover of the city in the first place. No greater example of taxation without representation exist than this.
Moreover, but for the action of this conservative Republican Governor, there would be no problem. It was he who demanded that Flint residents use and consume tainted water. And at no time material to this discussion did he test or ensure that the water was fit for human consumption. Equally telling is that none of the Republican presidential candidates have to date even commented on the serious public health problem confronting Flint. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/opinion/republicans-ignore-a-poisoned-city.html?action=click.
The Flint situation also reflects the arrogance of power, an arrogance based in large part on the Governor’s barely concealed contempt for the citizens and leadership of Flint. Forty percent (40%) of Flint residents live below the poverty level and a significant number are minorities, specifically African Americans.
Additionally, the city has long been a Democratic bastion. It was therefore easy for the Snyder administration to see itself as a source of benevolence; a wellspring of practical solutions to a beleaguered and broken city when in reality, the truth is just the opposite.
Governor Snyder has now admitted that his government has failed the city’s nearly 100,000 residents and that state officials made a huge mistake in terms of common sense regarding this matter. But the damage has already been done.
Lead poisoning is dangerous for anyone, but especially children. According to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning can severely affect mental and physical development in children and can even be fatal at high levels. Lead poisoning may also result in permanent damage and disability.
And in a letter to President Obama, Snyder estimates it will cost $767,419,500 to replace Flint’s water system, without which residents cannot get clean water. http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/03/us/flint-michigan-water-crisis/index.html. Home values are also affected by lead infused property.
Finally, the need to criminally prosecute officials, whether public or private who cause death and bodily harm to others may be the most significant lesson of Flint. This is especially true where the wrong is as egregious as this, the poisoning of an entire city.
It is therefore not enough that residents complain. They must instead strip the Governor and his entire administration of their immunity, the presumption of innocence and the notion of good faith. They should use the situation as a catalyst to organize like minded people into a powerful and effective political force, reverse the state receivership of the city, pursue a recall election and/or vote the incompetents out of office. They should also sue the hell out of the participants and make sure that any settlement comes out of their pockets.
More importantly, Flint should demand that the Governor and his appointees be treated like any other citizen. As evidence of possible criminal intent, consider the fact that at the same time the Governor was denying the problem and making excuses, his administration was supplying bottled water to state workers in Flint.
Only when the Governor, emergency manager and officials of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality face criminal sanctions will they consider their actions. Only then will they be held fully accountable for their misdeeds.
Had you or I put lead into a city’s water supply, we would be in prison by now.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum