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.â€We canâ€™t stand by and watch schools fail, water shut off, or police protection disappear,â€ the governor said in aÂ statementÂ defending the emergency management law. â€œWithout 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.â€
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 citiesâ€”and almost half of the stateâ€™s African-American populationâ€”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. â€œHaving 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,â€ says Eric Scorsone, the founding director of the Michigan State University Extension Center for State and Local Government Policy. â€œThey donâ€™t have the expertise they need. They arenâ€™t civil engineers, and they arenâ€™t health experts. You need to have other voices in the room.â€ Scoresone said that emergency managers need to work with other state agencies to bring holistic change to the cities under their careâ€”not just cost cutting. …
… In Snyderâ€™s speech Tuesday night, he spoke of one other problem in Michigan besides Flint: Detroitâ€™s Public Schools, where teacher shortages, dilapidated buildings and enormous deficits haveÂ led to teacher protests. Both problems in Southeastern Michigan spiraled out of control under state-appointed emergency managers. The Detroit Public Schoolsâ€™ 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.Â Emails revealed that the guys in the top-floor offices were determined that there was no problem that a little messaging couldn’t handle.
Â The cityâ€™s mayor at the time, Dayne Walling, encouraged leaders to â€œtoastâ€ the switch with a taste of the â€œregular, good, pure drinkingâ€ water, the governorâ€™s emails show. …
… Within months of the switch, a General Motors engine plant in Flint found thatÂ the cityâ€™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 â€œinitial hiccups.â€
â€œItâ€™s not â€˜nothing,â€™ â€œ the memo said, adding that the water was not an imminent â€œthreat to public health.â€ 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.