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Andrea Newell headshot

The Flint Water Crisis And a Culture of Zero Accountability

By Andrea Newell

TriplePundit is tracking the ongoing drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Follow our coverage here

By now, most have heard of the Michigan Emergency Manager law, Gov. Rick Snyder's use of it and the big part it played in the fiasco in Flint -- where a series of poor decisions, followed by negligence on the part of state and federal agencies, resulted in the poisoning of an entire town. (Review a full timeline here.)

But there were other conditions in Michigan years in the making that helped lead to the perfect storm that facilitated the Flint water crisis.

Along with the EM law, another big factor is the lack of accountability and transparency in Michigan government. Michigan's lax laws enable legislators to dodge scrutiny by exempting them from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), allow cronyism and nepotism, and do not bar legislators from weighing-in on decisions even if they have a conflict of interest.

Michigan ranked dead last out of all 50 states in a report on legislative accountability and transparency, illustrating that the state's policies left it wide open for abuse and corruption. This has fostered a culture of deception and lack of accountability at the highest level of government, and supported an attitude of dismissiveness and disdain toward most of the state's residents, especially the middle and lower class.

Recently released emails show that this is exactly what happened in Flint. Top Snyder advisors were concerned about the water situation in Flint in October 2014. This was six months after the city switched its water source to the Flint River and a full year before Snyder claims he knew anything about it.

Valerie Brader, the governor's deputy legal counsel and senior policy adviser, specifically mandated that the emails be kept within the top levels of government so they would be exempt from FOIA, any oversight or public scrutiny. Even after the Flint crisis came to light, the Snyder administration refused to release the emails until repeatedly asked by Congressional committee members.

Top state legislators are exempt from FOIA

In 1976, Michigan passed an open-records law exempting the governor and lieutenant governor, as well as their executive offices and employees, from public oversight through the FOIA.

This means that all correspondence, reports, appointment schedules and phone records are shielded from public scrutiny, making Michigan one of only three states (along with Massachusetts and Utah) that exempt both the governor and legislators from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. In 1986, the state's then-Attorney General Frank J. Kelley wrote an opinion that effectively expanded the law to include all state legislators.

“The attorney general, when asked by a legislator, issued a legal opinion. It is just that: an opinion," Jane Briggs-Bunting, who sits on the board of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a group that advocates for better open-records laws, told Fox17. “The legislature should, as a role model for the rest of the state, be operating under the Freedom of Information Act, and they’re not. They’ve chosen not to."

In the past, Gov. Snyder has "moved" contentious issues -- like plans for a new public bridge to Canada and the oversight of the problem-plagued prison food contract with Aramark Correctional Services -- from other departments into his office, prompting critics to say that he only did so in order to shield the information from review.

Later, Snyder did turn the Aramark information over to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which is not exempt from FOIA.

Documents that do fall under FOIA come with a high price

In addition to refusing access to legislators' documents, some agencies in Michigan charged high fees to supply requested documents that did fall under FOIA in order to discourage requests. If documents fall under FOIA, the public has a right to them by law.

In October 2015, Progress Michigan reported that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette advised departments to charge excessive fees to discourage records requests. In response to one request made by Progress Michigan, the Michigan Treasury charged the organization $52,000 to supply documents the public has a right to view. Another request had a $20,000 price tag. Fox17 got a bill for $110,000 for a request for information about Michigan's unemployment agency. Briggs-Bunting said that she was flooded with complaints by Michigan citizens about the difficulty in getting public records.

Finally, in 2015, a law went into effect that capped the fee at 10 cents per page and also allows people to sue if they feel they have been overcharged. My state actually needs a law to get access to documents without being charged tens of thousands of dollars.

Progress Michigan has led the fight to overturn this legislative FOIA exemption, saying:

"The governor, his staff and members of the legislature are largely unaccountable to the public due to the fact that they can conduct their business in secret without any ability of the public to see how their elected officials are operating with their tax dollars.

"From the Courser-Gamrat Scandal and the failed Aramark experiment to the now far more serious Flint Water Crisis, numerous examples have shown how a lack of transparency and accountability can lead to crisis-level situations that have real impacts in the lives of people and in the communities where they live and work."

But bills to remove the governor and other legislators from exemption have gone nowhere, and Snyder himself is not willing to give up this shield. Snyder's former spokesperson, Sara Wurfel, said the governor often supplies the media with documents that he isn't required to "in the spirit of transparency." But anything less than full transparency has fallen flat, especially in light of recent events.

It's official. Michigan government, Grade = F

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity concurred with Progress Michigan's assessment and ranked Michigan last in the nation, saying the state “has the worst government transparency and accountability laws and practices in the country.”

Center for Public Integrity writer Chad Selweski blamed Michigan's failing grade on the "shadowy aspects" of its "money-driven politics." Check out his full analysis here.

Selweski built on his statements by telling MLive's Jonathan Oosting: "Michigan has a ‘lack of effective disclosure rules for officials in nearly all facets of state government. Conflicts of interest and potential public corruption remain buried in an honor system with no honor.'”

Oosting added: “Michigan also has weak disclosure rules for lobbyists, who are allowed to report their activities ‘in such a vague format’ that the public is almost helpless to understand the potential influence, according to the analysis.”

Image credit: Flickr/Michigan Municipal League

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell