No, Gov. Sny­der, the fail­ure in Flint is yours

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Dana Mil­bank

Jeb Bush ex­plained Sun­day why he still thinks Rick Sny­der has been “a great gov­er­nor forMichi­gan” even af­ter the mass lead poi­son­ing be­cause of tainted tap wa­ter in Flint. The dis­grace over Flint’s wa­ter, Bush said Sun­day, “is re­lated to the fact that we’ve cre­ated this com­plex, no- re­spon­si­bil­ity reg­u­la­tory sys­tem, where the fed­eral govern­ment, the state govern­ment, a re­gional govern­ment, lo­cal and county gov­ern­ments are all point­ing fin­gers at one an­other.”

Um, no. The Flint disas­ter, three years in the mak­ing, is not a fail­ure of govern­ment gen­er­ally. It’s the fail­ure of a spe­cific gov­ern­ing phi­los­o­phy: Sny­der’s be­lief that govern­ment works bet­ter if run more like a busi­ness.

No doubt, the fed­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency de­serves blame for fail­ing to sound warn­ings more loudly and pub­licly once it learned last year that high lead lev­els in Flint were poi­son­ing chil­dren.

But the EPA had no role in the de­ci­sions that caused the prob­lem, nor was it sup­posed to. That was en­tirely the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Sny­der’s ad­min­is­tra­tion and his ap­pointees.

When Sny­der was elected, one of his first ac­tions was a new law that gave the state dra­matic pow­ers to take over fail­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and school boards by ap­point­ing emer­gency man­agers with unchecked au­thor­ity. The un­elected viceroys had man­dates to im­prove mu­nic­i­pal fi­nances but lit­tle in­cen­tive to weigh other con­sid­er­a­tions.

In Flint, one such emer­gency man­ager, Ed­ward Kurtz, aban­doned the city’s decades- long re­liance on Detroit as its source of clean tap wa­ter in 2013, un­der the the­ory that it could re­duce Flint’s high wa­ter bills by tap­ping into a new pipe­line that was still un­der con­struc­tion.

Kurtz’s suc­ces­sor as Flint’s emer­gency man­ager, Dar­nell Ear­ley ( now emer­gency man­ager of Detroit’s schools), made the fate­ful de­ci­sion to use treated wa­ter from the Flint River as the city’s wa­ter sup­ply start­ing in 2014 while the pipe­line was be­ing com­pleted— even though Detroit was will­ing to con­tinue pro­vid­ing high- qual­ity wa­ter un­der a short- term con­tract. This was sup­posed to save Flint $ 5 mil­lion.

And Ear­ley’s suc­ces­sor as Flint emer­gency man­ager, Jerry Am­brose, over­ruled a city coun­cil vote in March 2015 to re­turn to Detroit wa­ter. Am­brose called the coun­cil’s re­quest “in­com­pre­hen­si­ble” and a waste of $ 12 mil­lion— even though there had al­ready been chem­i­cal and bac­te­rial prob­lems with the river wa­ter, the qual­ity had vi­o­lated the Safe Drink­ing­Wa­ter Act and the Gen­er­alMo­tors plant in Flint had stopped us­ing the wa­ter be­cause it was rust­ing car parts.

“You can­not sep­a­rate what hap­pened in Flint from the state’s ex­treme emer­gency- man­age­ment law,” said Curt Guyette, who, work­ing for the ACLU of Michi­gan, un­cov­ered much of the scan­dal in Flint. “The bot­tom line is mak­ing sure the banks and bond hold­ers get paid at all costs, even if the kids are poi­soned with foul river wa­ter.”

The emer­gency- man­ager law, Guyette ar­gued, “is about the tak­ing away of democ­racy and the im­po­si­tion of aus­ter­ity- fu­eled au­toc­racy on cities that are poor and ma­jor­ity African- Amer­i­can.”

Sny­der’s blam­ing of lo­cal au­thor­i­ties is disin­gen­u­ous: Be­cause of the emer­gency- man­age­ment law, mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials can’t do any­thing with­out the bless­ing of Sny­der’s viceroys.

As for fed­eral of­fi­cials, the EPA warned Michi­gan as early as Fe­bru­ary 2015 that con­tam­i­nants were leach­ing into the wa­ter sys­tem in Flint. The EPA didn’t press pub­licly or ag­gres­sively to fix the prob­lem, a fail­ure that led to the re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tor’s res­ig­na­tion last week. That foot­drag­ging post­poned ac­tion by a few months— an in­ex­cus­able de­lay, to be sure— but the feds had no say in the de­ci­sions that caused the prob­lem.

Sny­der un­der­took an ar­ro­gant pub­lic- pol­icy ex­per­i­ment, un­der­pinned by the ide­o­log­i­cal as­sump­tion that the “ex­pe­ri­ence set” of cor­po­rat­estyle man­agers was su­pe­rior to the checks and bal­ances of democ­racy. This is why Flint hap­pened.

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