Volume 5       Number 219     

Now we have an encore: the contaminated water in Newark, New Jersey. Almost at the same time, ex-Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, of the infamous Flint water contamination, hit the national headlines again on July 3, 2019. It was learned that Harvard’s Kennedy School and Snyder had agreed to rescind a yearlong position for him in the School, the day his fellowship was to begin. The “it won’t go away” is Governor Snyder’s association with the water crisis, and his role in it.         

The governor was to have this prestigious post, as a Senior Research Fellow, with the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. The School was looking to draw on his expertise as an eight-year governor of the state of Michigan. The Harvard position was probably richer in prestige than monetary reward. But the deal was nixed because of the backlash from Michiganders, once the appointment became known. Nearly 7,000 people had signed an on-line petition in two days, before the appointment was to begin, and it had created an uproar.

Let’s refresh (an unintended pun) what happened in Flint. It began in 2011 when Governor Snyder declared Flint to be in a dire financial state. This led the governor to put in place an Emergency City Manager. Michigan had adopted this measure with a number of the state’s financially troubled cities during the prior ten or so years. The concept was to allow strong, apolitical appointees to run financially struggling cities in the state until they were put on an even keel. It had been done before in the state, notably in Detroit, and was not considered successful anywhere.

Nevertheless, this appointed individual was given broad powers to intervene in the financially struggling Flint, superseding the elected mayor. The person who oversaw Flint was appointed in September 2013. This individual, Darnell Earley, had seven years experience as emergency manager in Saginaw and had knowledge of Flint, having been both a city administrator and temporary mayor there.

The procedure was inherently flawed, because it gave broad discretionary powers to an individual who wasn’t beholden to the voters of his constituency. In fact, his only constituency was one man, Governor Rick Snyder, who was 56 miles away in Lansing, with a lot of other things on his mind other than Flint.

In April, 2014 Earley oversaw a cost-cutting decision, to change the city’s water source. For years Flint had, in effect, bought its water from the city of Detroit. In actuality, this was not from the Detroit River, but high quality water that came from the Great Lakes, the largest fresh body of drinking water in the world. Now the water would come from the Flint River. Obviously, the Detroit water was better, or else the city would have relied on its own water to start with.

The cost cutting was part of Governor Snyder’s program. He gave a huge tax break to his wealthy constituents and to corporations. But with less tax revenue, he was looking for ways to cut services. That is where the idea of the switch to Flint River water came from. It was just another dodge to help justify the tax cut.

Sure enough, once the new hook-up was completed, the citizens quickly began complaining about murky and smelly water. Then General Motors stopped using Flint water because it rusted car parts; then the U.S. Environmental Agency told Michigan officials that contaminants were leaching into the Flint water system; then Flint flubbed the Safe Water Drinking Act; then it was revealed that state workers in Flint were buying bottled water; a doctor, Dr. Mona Hanna Atisha discovered that more children had lead in their blood since the water switch, and finally an official state announcement admitted that.

So fully eighteen months later, after denying all this time there was a problem, the Governor finally ‘fessed up and Flint began using Detroit water again in October, 2015. But the damage to pipes meant the water was still contaminated. Both the State and Federal government stepped in with aid to fix the problem with the pipes, but it was too little and too late.

The City and its people were severely harmed: physically, emotionally and financially. Especially, some young children may have been developmentally affected. People continue to be in a bind to this day because it is difficult to leave Flint: no one wants to buy their homes. And many of the locals will still not use the local water.

A 116-page report on the crisis was released in 2016. This was from a five-member task force appointed by who else but Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. While finding wrongdoing, the report let him off the hook, saying that he relied on incorrect information provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. At the time of the report, Snyder continued to be evasive when questioned about why he didn’t react sooner.

Eventually, 15 other people who worked for the state and local government have been charged with crimes for what they did and for the cover-up that followed. These include Emergency City Manager Earley and his replacement, Gerald Ambrose. Seven people have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors and gotten a plea deal. In 2018 the state removed the position of City Manager of Flint. Still, five years later, no one has been sentenced to prison for what happened here.

Governor Snyder, the ultimate decider, was not charged in 2016, which many consider a whitewash. There remains a lingering, What did he know and when did he know it? around the Governor. Yet, in 2018 a report from the U. of Michigan said, “The governor had adequate legal authority to intervene by demanding more information from agency directors, reorganizing agencies to assure availability or appropriate expertise where needed, ordering state agencies to respond, or ultimately firing ineffective agency heads. But he abjured, either due to ignorance or willful neglect of duty.”

Now getting back to the latest happenings it seems like the folks at Harvard didn’t do due diligence or they would have known that Governor Snyder was still in hot water, because this was the subject of a case that had been reinstated just back in April, 2019 in a class action lawsuit. The plaintiffs had submitted new facts to the State Court in late 2018. The suit says that the governor was culpable because he knew that there were high levels of lead in the water system months before going public, and did nothing about it. Not only that, but he lied about it.

As part of the investigation, in June of this year investigators seized the cell phone the governor had used while in office, and other mobile devices belonging to dozens of members of his administration. Who knows what they found on those cell phones? The investigation into Governor Snyder goes on–drip, drip, drip.

The Flint water crisis illustrates how the challenges in America’s shrinking cities are not a crisis of local leadership – or, at least, not solely that – but a crisis of systems. Paternalism, even if it is well meaning, cannot transcend the political, economic, and social obstacles that relegate places such as Flint to the bottom… Communities that are poor and communities of color – and especially those that are both – are hurt worst of all.” 
― Anna Clark, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy

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