Editor’s Note: Steve Banko forwarded the following commentary several days ago, and it provides a thorough review of the problems created in Flint, Michigan when an emergency manager appointed by Governor Rick Snyder took matters into his own hands and wound up creating a public health and environmental hazard in the city. A story in yesterday’s New York Times reports that the crisis has now prompted a federal emergency declaration.
By Steve Banko
I spent twenty years working on political campaigns and thirty-three years in government. From the beginning of my experience, I’ve heard the mantra from conservatives and their acolytes in the Republican Party that “government needs to be run like a business.” On the other side, progressives and their teammates, the Democrats, have scoffed at the notion because simply stated government is not a business.
Well, several states are being run like businesses so let’s look at the result.
Michigan is a great place to start. Michigan’s governor is a CPA and the former CEO of Gateway Computers. He had no experience in public service prior to his election but he was a businessman.
One of the first things he did was to get a law passed that essentially ended democracy in Michigan. That law allowed the governor’s judgment to supersede local elections. If he didn’t like the results of a local election the law gave the governor the power to appoint people as emergency managers to get localities on track. Great theory, bad practice. The localities that get these emergency managers in Michigan never seem to recover. Instead, they continue to be run by these appointed managers who report only to the governor.
These managers were the ones who shut off water to thousands of homes in Detroit because of water payment arrears. That caused the United Nations to come to Detroit and say the shutoffs were “a violation of basic human rights.”
The governor used that law to impose his rule on the people of Flint, Michigan. His appointed viceroys were given the mandate to cut costs. You know, start operating like a business. In June of 2013, the Flint emergency manager issued a directive to stop buying water from the city of Detroit and to start using the Flint River as the primary source of drinking water. In 2014 that happened. The emergency manager then saw no need to keep the old pipes that connected Flint’s water system with Detroit. So he sold them. That meant there was no going back in the event Flint River water had a problem.
River water is different than the lake water Flint used to drink. Untreated, it is saltier than lake water and thus more corrosive to the pipes it passed through. Lead joints connect those pipes. General Motors decided years ago not to use Flint River water because it corrodes the pipes it passes through. That transmits lead into the water system. There is no lead level in water that is considered safe. Lead is most problematic in children, who can suffer permanent neurological damage, lower IQs and behavioral problems from lead exposure. But it affects adults as well.
Lots of communities around the country use river water as a primary source. But river water requires treatment before it is safe to drink. Treatment costs money. So the governor and his minions told Flint their water didn’t need treatment to deal with what was in the Flint River.
People started complaining almost immediately about the water quality. General Motors stopped using Flint water because it was corroding car parts. The state was reporting increasing levels of lead in the water. The Environmental Protection Agency got into the fray and produced a memo that indicated “high levels” of lead were detected in Flint water.
So the businessman fixed the problem, right?
The governor attacked the author of the EPA report, calling him a rogue employee. An appointee of the governor went on the radio in July of 2015 telling the people of Flint to “relax, there is no broad problem with the drinking water …”
But a MacArthur “genius award winner” who specialized in water quality went to Flint and studied the water there. He held a press conference to reveal his finding that included a nail being eaten through by the Flint water. A doctor started testing blood samples from kids she saw. But the governor continued to downplay the situation, again berating the EPA study author and the doctor.
The people of Flint drank that water for seventeen months before, finally, confronted with all the evidence that the water was poisoning Flint, the governor admitted “there might be a problem” and that some things were not fully understood before the switch to river water.
It is important to keep in mind the power the governor of Michigan gave himself as one of his first official acts – to override locally elected officials to appoint emergency managers as he saw fit. So these consequences were not a result of poor local governance. They were, instead, the result of gubernatorial oversight.
Faced with the mounting crisis, the elected mayor of Flint stepped back into the picture to declare a state of emergency due to man-made causes. She effectively reasserted her authority. In contrast, the governor answered a reporter’s question by advising people “there are other sources of lead” and encouraged them to look away from his administration’s bungling of the Flint water issue. But the governor did promise to appoint – key word there? – appoint a new commission to study the problem. The course this commission might take can be gleaned from the fact that one of the new appointees is a “communication specialist.”
Of course, having sold off the pipes that might have provided an alternative to the poisoned water, there is no turning back from the continued use of this contaminated water.
But what the hell, look at all the money we saved.
I’ve been to Flint and it is a sad city. They lost most of their economy when General Motors hit the skids and have yet to find another path to prosperity. The city once had 80,000 people working in the automotive industry. Now, they are down to a tenth of that number, just 8,000 workers.
So they probably needed some help with governance. Instead, they got poisoned.