Flint’s water crisis is not simply about some evil, racist Republican who didn’t care about poisoning children.
First, a few preliminaries. I no longer live in Flint, but in Minneapolis. That said, my parents lived there until recently, and I still have relatives in my hometown. Second, I see Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as a pragmatic leader and not an ideologue, conservative but willing to work across party lines.
When my hometown of Flint makes the national news, it’s practically never good. Around the nation, folks recently learned that lead had made its way into Flint’s water supply. This was yet another black eye for a once proud and prosperous city that has had it rough recently.
The uproar over having contaminated water is understandable. No one wants something in the water that could harm children’s development. But what is interesting is how people are telling this story. While I do think the state of Michigan has some of the blame, activists, local and state leaders, and citizens tend to think the state and the governor are the true villains.
Hillary Clinton attempted to capitalize on interest in this with her closing statement in Sunday’s Democratic primary debate, saying, “The governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had a request for help and he had basically stone walled. I’ll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.”
First, About the Emergency Manager Law
People are saying things like this because of the Emergency Manager (EM) law. Lawmakers enacted a version of it called Public Act 72 in 1990, and a revised version called Public Act 4 in 2011. Michigan voters repealed this version in 2012 (which then reinstated the old PA 72), and a subsequent law 436 was passed in 2012. The Michigan Department of Treasury has a good description of the law, but a fact sheet from the Michigan State University Extension sums it up perfectly:
If an EM is appointed, this person is authorized to act for and in place of the local governing body and administrative officer of the community. The governing body only retains any powers authorized by the EM. The EM has broad powers to resolve the financial crisis and insure the fiscal accountability of the community to provide services for the health, safety and welfare of its residents.
Because of its ability to sideline local leaders during a financial emergency, this law has caused a lot of opposition in-state and nationally. It doesn’t help that for a certain period the cities under an EM were majority African-American cities. I don’t think that was intended, but it is there. This was probably one of the reasons Snyder waited a bit before putting Detroit under an EM in 2013.
So a white Republican governor is using a law that temporarily sidelines local leaders on a majority African-American city. Yeah, the optics are bad, and the combination was a volatile mix ready to explode, and it did in Flint. So, did Snyder poison children? Is the EM law the reason we have this mess?
The media and others seem to place the blame there. My own answer is: I’m not sure. The decisions leading to the City of Flint using the Flint River as a main water source are not as clear as some would believe. My own look at the timeline tells me a number of steps led to the final decision, and at each point someone did something that led us down this road.
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