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Andrea Newell headshot

How Michigan's Elimination of Democracy Poisoned a City

By Andrea Newell

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

In the weeks since the Flint water crisis gained national attention, we've read numerous stories about who or what is to blame.

To recap: The city of Flint, Michigan, switched drinking water sources from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money while a new pipeline was being constructed. The river water is 19 times more corrosive than the lake water and was not treated with an anti-corrosive agent. Over time, the water damaged the pipes, sending enough lead to qualify as toxic waste into the city's drinking water and causing hundreds of people (including children) to get lead poisoning.

The governor and the emergency manager law played a big part, but the blame goes further

At the top of the list is Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, enabled by the one of the broadest emergency manager (EM) laws in the country and determined to treat Michigan like a failing business that needs to be fixed no matter what the (human) cost. There is also enough blame to go around to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for dismissing concerns and failing to treat the water properly, as well as the EPA for its failure to act.

However, the roots of this disastrous decision, the determination to ignore citizens asking for help for more than a year, the failure to act, and the deflection of any responsibility lie in the rotten political culture that exists in Michigan.

Our state is ruled by a government lacking in accountability and transparency (ranked dead last of all 50 states), and lawmakers that pass laws without voter input -- repeatedly ignoring the needs and wishes of the voters and catering to business interests over individuals. Our governor has gone even further by passing budgets that have put a heavy financial burden on lower- and middle-class residents, as well as cities and school districts, while exempting businesses. Gov. Snyder also abused the emergency manager law to centralize as much power as possible within a small select group -- taking away the choice and voice of a large number of residents, while giving these appointed rulers immunity from any consequences.

That these factors created an environment which resulted in an enormous catastrophe that devastated an entire community isn't a surprise -- with these conditions, it was a virtual certainty.

Snyder made use of the emergency manager law immediately to give him (and an entitled few) a lot of power.

It's well known by now that the emergency manager law allows the governor to appoint a single, unelected fiscal manager to take control of a municipality or school district that the state decides is in financial trouble. The original emergency manager law was passed in Michigan in 1988 and strengthened in 1990. Before Snyder, an emergency financial manager had only been appointed 10 times in more than 20 years. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm (2003–2011) used it to implement removal hearings for Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Detroit mayor who stepped down and was later convicted of corruption.

When Snyder took office in 2011, he immediately strengthened the EM law (Public Act 4), giving it even broader reach. Between 2011 and 2015, Snyder used the law seven times, far more than any other governor, and EMs presided mostly over cities with low-income, minority residents. In 2013-2014, more than half of Michigan's black residents were under emergency manager rule.

Emergency managers don't usually live in the city that they are sent to fix, yet they possess extremely broad powers to make significant decisions over that community and are not accountable to the city leadership or residents if they don’t agree or express dissatisfaction. After Snyder's EM expansion in 2012, Michigan Radio reported:

"An emergency manager can:

  • Hire/fire local government employees

  • Renegotiate, terminate, modify labor contracts with state treasury approval

  • Sell, lease, or privatize local assets with state treasury approval

  • Revise contract obligations

  • Change local budgets without local legislative approval

  • Initiate municipal bankruptcy proceedings

  • Hire support staff

"An emergency manager cannot raise taxes.

"According to Joe Harris, Benton Harbor’s emergency manager, Public Act 4 effectively removes power from local, elected officials once an EM is appointed.

"Harris told Michigan Radio in May that, 'the only authority that they can have is the authority that's provided to them, or is given to them by the emergency manager.'

"Under Public Act 4, emergency managers have removed the legislative powers of elected officials, suspended their pay, fired city officials, and imposed pay cuts that violate union contracts."

The residents have no recourse to be heard as they would with elected officials. Emergency managers also receive immunity from liability under the law. They are selected by the governor, but they're not required to have any specific qualifications outside of being fiscally savvy.

Snyder says if he has more power, he will protect everyone and prevent disasters.

Snyder says that the emergency manager law is really for the benefit and protection of Michigan citizens.

“[If] a financial emergency exists … the governor can appoint an emergency manager who will be accountable to the governor and the legislature … Appointing an emergency manager is the last thing I ever want to do. That's why this law provides a way to prevent a financial crisis from ever getting this far. But if worse comes to worse, the state has a responsibility to protect the health, welfare and safety of its citizensWe can't stand by and watch schools fail, water shut off or police protection disappear. Without the emergency manager law, there is precious little that can be done to prevent those kinds of nightmare scenarios. But with it, we can take positive action on behalf of the people to quickly avert a crisis.” [emphasis mine]

In 2012, during a town hall meeting, residents expressed concern about the sweeping power of Public Act 4 -- saying it overrides elected representative government. Snyder disagreed and responded, “The emergency managers ultimately report to me, and I am an elected person.”

When Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected the use of emergency managers and struck down Public Act 4 in 2012, Snyder and the Michigan legislature went around voters and put another EM law in its place within weeks. Although it reined in emergency manager powers slightly, this EM law was written specifically to be immune to voter challenge, and voters have not been able to repeal it with either lawsuits or petitions. (Laws that cannot be challenged by voters are a large part of the bigger problem in Michigan.)

Everyone in Michigan knew the finger-pointing dispute over the water switch was silly.

There have been a lot of accusations back and forth between Flint's leadership and the emergency managers about who was responsible for the water switch. (You can read a detailed timeline here.) The ultimate decision-making power rested with the emergency manager, no matter what voting formalities the city council went through or what fine print the current emergency manager law has.

By fighting to expand the law's reach and reinstating it against voters' wishes, Snyder made his feelings clear. Emergency managers have absolute control. Flint resident Connor Coyne described the atmosphere in Flint during the four years of EM rule. "From 2011 to 2015, Flint officials had no real control over municipal policy."

After seeing Snyder's use of the emergency manager rule in other cities to dismantle leadership, sell assets, fire employees and dissolve school districts, Michigan city leaders know what it means to be under EM rule. It is the same as being in a company that was just bought. You have a job, but you'd better toe the new company line, or you won't have one anymore. After all, Snyder is, first and foremost, a businessman.

Coyne indicated that certainly was the case. "Indeed, campaign aides working for locally elected officials told me that they had been pressured by the state to enforce the priorities of the managers or face an indefinite continuation of the state takeover," he told Vox.com.

Is Snyder saying he's an incompetent supervisor, or that he just doesn't care? Or both?

No matter when he claims to have learned of the conditions in Flint, due to his own actions, and by his own words, Gov. Snyder should have known all along exactly what was happening.

To grab all this power, appoint dictators over cities and then fail to supervise them -- claiming to not know what they were doing for more than a year while residents were crying out for help -- is utterly inexcusable. He is either a grossly incompetent supervisor who never bothered to check on what his appointed managers were doing, or he knew and did nothing. Or both.

Snyder's strongest justification for the EM law was that he could save communities from crisis faster with just a few people in charge by cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy. We have heard no reason for why this approach failed so thoroughly here.

Snyder has apologized for having incompetent people beneath him and in the MDEQ, but not for any role he played in establishing the conditions that made this disaster not only possible, but probable.

Will there be any consequences?

So far, there have been no consequences for Snyder or any emergency managers (who have immunity), although Michigan residents are calling for Snyder's resignation and criminal charges.

Snyder never mentions the emergency managers' failure: the failure to make an informed decision; the failure to implement it competently; the failure to follow up; the failure to act in the best interests of citizens and not bottom lines; and most of all, the failure to report directly to him the issues in Flint (as he claims).

But the tide may be turning. Heads have rolled at the MDEQ and the EPA. The FBI has launched an investigation. Congress declined to invite Gov. Snyder to testify about this issue, but ordered Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley to appear.

Earley initially declined, citing his work with as emergency manager of Detroit's public schools. He has since resigned from that post as criticism intensified over how he handled both emergency manager roles. Since Earley didn't show up for his testimony, U.S. Marshals are now looking for him. Calls for Snyder to testify are getting louder while he continues to dodge responsibility and explanation.

Snyder refuses to resign. Recalls so far have been unsuccessful. (Snyder also strengthened the laws governing legislator recalls, making it harder to remove him from office.)

He did all he could to give himself as much power as possible, since he believes only his judgment can save Michigan, yet he failed the people of Flint miserably.

For years, Michigan voter outrage has fallen on deaf ears. But now, with the world watching, Snyder is loosening the grip of the emergency manager rule that has held so much of our state hostage. Now that his decisions are being examined under a national microscope, it isn't just Michigan residents who are calling foul. For too long, Snyder has enjoyed a huge amount of power over Michigan residents and never admitted that he has made any mistakes -- even after everything that has happened. Now we'll see what the world thinks.

As for Michigan, the emergency manager law is only one of its major problems. Michigan government's lack of accountability, as well as recent laws and budget decisions, all contributed to the environment that caused the Flint water crisis. In the next articles, we'll examine those factors.

These images are used with permission by Michigan photographer Petra Daher.

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