By Shea Howell
January 3, 2016
On the eve of the New Year, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force felt compelled to deliver a letter to Governor Snyder. It is a remarkably candid assessment of the Governor’s failures, the crass attitude of his appointees, and the creation of a culture of disrespect and denial within government.
Thus far, the Governor does not seem to grasp the extraordinary damage he has done. His weak apology and appointments of a coordinator and public relations expert were met with immediate criticism. “Political appointees and public relations people are what got us into this mess, and they aren’t who we need leading us out of it,” Flint State Senator Jim Ananich said. “Anything less than a professional trained in emergency management or public health will not suffice.”
The latest letter to Snyder prompted the resignations of two top officials who failed in their responsibilities for protecting the public. Dan Wyant, the Director of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whose agency was cited as “primarily responsible for failing to ensure safe drinking water,” resigned. This was followed by the resignation of the DEQ spokesman, Brad Wurfel.
“Snyder said. “I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened. He continued, “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure. I know many Flint citizens are angry and want more than an apology. That’s why I’m taking the actions today to ensure a culture of openness and trust.”
There is no doubt Snyder is “sorry this has happened.” But his apology misses the point. This is not about “aging infrastructure” or the acts of a few individuals. It is the result of an ideology dedicated to saving money and denying our responsibilities to one another and the ecosystems on which we depend for life.
Governor Snyder, not his appointees, carries the primary responsibility for this crisis. It is not only that he may well have known about lead poisoning long before he was forced to act on it. It is that he is responsible for the conduct of his appointees. They carry forth his attitudes. These attitudes value saving money over protecting people and public health. They are attitudes that disdain democracy and disrespect citizens who question the decisions of unaccountable authorities.
Snyder has refused to reflect on how his decision to appoint unaccountable emergency managers to run major cities contributed to this disaster. He has refused to look at how his bottom line thinking endangers our public responsibility to one another. He has refused to explore how his own attitudes toward those who disagree and question him. He refuses to acknowledge that controversy and disagreement are essential to sound decision-making.
His task force says bluntly, “It is clear to us, particularly as we listen to the people of Flint, that it is both critical and urgent to establish responsibility for what happened in their community and ensure accountability.”
The letter acknowledges that “other individuals and entities made poor decisions, contributing to and prolonging the contamination of the drinking water supply in Flint,” beyond the DEQ. Citing reports of “early knowledge” and “yet, silence, about elevated blood lead levels detected among Flints children” the letter concludes “we feel it is important to review local government decision processes under emergency management.”
The crisis in Flint reveals the deep flaws in the Snyder administration. It raises questions not only of mis-management and bad decisions, but of criminal acts, knowingly perpetrated by arrogant officials in the name of efficiency.