Stark evidence of how terribly bad things can go when democracy is dismantled can be found in the elevated levels of lead in the children of Flint.
Because of decisions made by an appointed emergency manager, the tragically high costs of trying to balance a budget by switching to an unsafe water source will be borne by kids now forced to struggle with lower IQs, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and a host of other ill effects.
This is what can happen when people are denied full access to representative government; they get poisoned by appointees with no connection to the community. Under Michigan’s emergency manager law – PA 436 — gubernatorial appointees can leave town claiming to have successfully solved a fiscal crisis when in fact what they leave in their wake is a catastrophe of monumental proportions.
In recent days, as the lead problems in Flint have made international news, former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley – the man in charge when the switch to the Flint River was made, and who is now overseeing the education of the children in Detroit Public Schools – has tried to deny any responsibility for the catastrophe.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Earley claimed in an e-mailed statement “that he was not involved in the decision to use river water.”
The governor’s office and Earley can rightfully claim that the Flint mayor and City Council initially gave their blessing to the switch made 18 months ago. But that fig leaf provides little real cover for the state officials now trying to run away from their disastrous decision.
For starters, it doesn’t matter what the mayor and City Council had to say when the decision was made. The emergency manager, under the sweeping powers granted under Public Act 436, had complete authority to make the switch regardless of what Flint’s elected officials wanted.
Moreover, those officials were in essence working for the emergency manager, not the people who elected them. The EM decided how much pay the mayor and council members drew, and how much power they could wield.
How do things go when appointed officials try to buck the control of an EM? As we’ve seen in Benton Harbor and Detroit Public Schools, the answer is that they get denuded of all power and are completely marginalized.
The message to elected officials under state control has been made perfectly clear: play ball with the EM, or else.
But there is another problem with the EM law as well, one made painfully obvious in Flint. In a normally-functioning democracy, when it came time for a city of Flint to conduct tests to show it is in compliance with federal drinking water regulations, the city would be an independent actor with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) serving as a separate check on the system, another independent actor providing oversight to make sure the job is done correctly.
Instead, with Governor Rick Snyder’s man being the one in charge when the decision was made to start using river water – a decision that was almost instantly revealed to be fraught with problems – the MDEQ, instead of being a watchdog protecting the citizens of Flint, served as a collaborator, working with the city to do everything in their power to skew results so that their tests would make it appear that the water was safe when it wasn’t.
How do we know it wasn’t safe? Because grassroots citizen groups worked with researchers at Virginia Tech and the ACLU of Michigan to conduct an independent test of nearly 300 city homes and found that the problem was far worse than the city and state claimed.
When those results were released in mid-September, the response by the state was to try and discredit them. The same was true a week later, when a Hurley Children’s Hospital study found the number of children with elevated lead levels doubled after the switch to the Flint River was made.
Those two studies, and the host of problems with the state and city’s water testing, last week prompted the ACLU of Michigan, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and an array of civic groups to file a petition with the U.S. EPA, calling upon the federal government to come in and provide the oversight necessary to ensure Flint’s water is clean and safe.
Finally, after the state’s own data confirmed those findings, and Genesee County officials took the drastic step of declaring a public health emergency, the governor and MDEQ were forced to finally admit the truth and started taking some action.
But even if those measures are enough – and they may well not be, failing as they do to require a switch back to the much cleaner and far less corrosive Detroit system – the damage already caused by this governor and his emergency managers is irreversible for the children who will struggle for the rest of their lives because of the decisions made while Flint was under state control and democracy was suspended.
Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He covers issues involving emergency management and open government. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or firstname.lastname@example.org.