All Wet

It says something about the state of journalism today that the clearest explanation of what happened to Flint’s water was on the Daily Show.

Anyhoo — Flint is a good example of what happens when someone tries to run government “like a business.” We’re told Flint switched its water supply to save money, but the real cause of this disaster goes a bit deeper. The best explanation is in Fortune (of all places):

Five years ago, Snyder signed legislation that expanded the reasons why the state could choose to appoint a municipal emergency manager, then granted those appointees almost complete power over their assigned municipalities. Under Public Act 4, as it was called, state-appointed emergency managers could break collective bargaining agreements, fire elected officials and determine their salaries, and privatize or sell public assets. “We can’t stand by and watch schools fail, water shut off, or police protection disappear,” the governor said in a statement defending the emergency management law. “Without the emergency manager law, there is precious little that can be done to prevent those kinds of nightmare scenarios. But with it, we can take positive action on behalf of the people to quickly avert a crisis.”

Let that part sink in for a minute.

Emergency management is a way to short-circuit democracy when a city faces financial insolvency, with the idea that a leader free from accountability to voters can make unpopular but necessary decisions. But Michigan voters rejected that law in a state-wide referendum, as many unions and civil rights groups raised alarm that this new breed of emergency managers could break union contracts and usurp local governance. A month later, the state legislature passed a replacement law that made minor adjustments and one major one: an appropriation banning a referendum on the new law. That was 2012.

By 2013, six Michigan cities “and almost half of the state’s African-American population” were under emergency management. In many of these cities, public services were pared down to the minimum.

This is a very right-wing approach to dealing with poverty. The cities in question were failing because the employer void left by the auto industry was not filled, leaving cities like Flint without enough tax base to run the city with. But instead of addressing that problem, the state assumed these cities were failing because the locals weren’t able to govern themselves. They needed someone to get tough with them and instill a little fiscal discipline. It’s a bit like the way 19th century Europeans treated the simple brown natives in their colonies.

The emergency managers didn’t answer to the people; they answered to Rick Snyder. And they tried to run Flint like a business, meaning all they cared about was short-term profitability.

Without the checks and balances present in a democratically-elected government, the emergency manager was able to make unilateral decisions. “Having one person as the decision maker, the idea is that you can get things done quickly and efficiently, but most of these emergency managers are people like city managers and financial experts,” says Eric Scorsone, the founding director of the Michigan State University Extension Center for State and Local Government Policy. “They don’t have the expertise they need. They aren’t civil engineers, and they aren’t health experts. You need to have other voices in the room.” Scoresone said that emergency managers need to work with other state agencies to bring holistic change to the cities under their care–not just cost cutting. …

… In Snyder’s speech Tuesday night, he spoke of one other problem in Michigan besides Flint: Detroit’s Public Schools, where teacher shortages, dilapidated buildings and enormous deficits have led to teacher protests. Both problems in Southeastern Michigan spiraled out of control under state-appointed emergency managers. The Detroit Public Schools’ current emergency manager? Darnell Earley, the man who once ran Flint.

On top of that, the “company” (i.e., Michigan) tried to brush off the problem with aggressive PR.  Emails revealed that the guys in the top-floor offices were determined that there was no problem that a little messaging couldn’t handle.

 The city’s mayor at the time, Dayne Walling, encouraged leaders to “toast” the switch with a taste of the “regular, good, pure drinking” water, the governor’s emails show. …

… Within months of the switch, a General Motors engine plant in Flint found that the city’s water had corroded parts, and stopped using it. A hospital saw that the water was damaging its instruments, and stepped up its own filtering and use of bottled water, as did a local university.

Still, officials seemed slow to respond. In one memo for the governor from February 2015, officials played down the problems and spoke of “initial hiccups.”

“It’s not ‘nothing,'” the memo said, adding that the water was not an imminent “threat to public health.” It also suggested that Flint residents were concerned with aesthetics.

Yes, a city full of lead-poisoned children is so unaesthetic. See also Charles Blow.

8 thoughts on “All Wet

  1. I can only picture that one commercial, from long ago, with a Native American, looking out over a body of water, with a tear streaming down his grizzled old Face…I weep at that image myself, and can only wonder what my true reaction would be if I were a parent in Flint….

  2. The righties are already laying the blame with the EPA? When has a teatard politician ever accepted blame for anything?

  3. GOP/Conservative POV:
    “The beatings will continue – and get worse – until morale improves!!!”

    It’s only water and air!
    Think of all of the tax mone…
    *Cough-cough… *
    Tax money the city is savin…
    Can I get a little space here, and a glass of water?
    Some good water from somewhere else!

    Now, what was I talking about?
    Oh yes, good clean water and ai…


  4. H²O the purest of all substances..? I’m amazed that the city manager would drink that water to try and convince the residents of Flint that the water was good. Even if you didn’t know exactly what contaminates were in the water..Common sense would tell you that if it wasn’t crystal clear and if it had any kind of an odor then it’s not good water.
    I think the saddest part of all this the mentality that governance can be equated to a business model.

  5. Republicanism is an evil that must be eliminated before this country can even begin to try to be anything like as great as we were told it was in the 60s (in my case, in elementary school).

  6. Dan: I _want_ a republic. But I agree that ‘republicanism’ is an Orwellian term, like ‘conservative’.
    First they cancelled democracy, then they poisoned the water. This is a cartoonish level of villainy and incompetence.
    By the way, isn’t the word ‘poisoned’ so much more motivating than ‘polluted’?

  7. Thanks for this post; the emergency manager travesty is not getting enough attention outside the state. The Detroit Public Schools have been under an EM for years and look where they are.

    But there’s even more to the story: Cities in Michigan don’t just have declining tax bases. They are not allowed to raise taxes over a certain level. When that was passed, the deal was that the state would collect extra taxes and then distribute them to local governments as “revenue sharing.”

    Then a bunch of Republicans took over state government, and cut taxes for their friends. Business taxes fell from $2 billion a year to almost nothing. But the roads still needed paving and they didn’t want to let anyone out of prison. So they took billions of dollars that should have gone to locals and used it to make the state budget work. They pushed cities into insolvency and then declared it the result of people not knowing how to run their cities.

    Also, what an interesting coincidence that when Detroit’s EM wanted to sell off the water and sewer system to a private company during the bankruptcy, Flint’s EM decided to stop buying water from Detroit. Everyone in Michigan knows this was intended to make the numbers look good for selling the system. But I haven’t heard a peep about it in the national media.

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