(Michigan Municipal League / Flickr)

In the Wake of Flint’s Water Crisis, It’s Time for a Federal Emergency Manager for Michigan

Maybe we should take a page from Gov. Rick Snyder’s own playbook and override his authority.

BY Louis Nayman

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Flint’s water crisis is both a financial and a public health emergency caused by incompetency at the highest level of state government. It is just the kind of emergency that the state’s emergency manager laws were intended to address, except that in this case the incompetency, mismanagement and emergency lie not with local elected officials, but with the governor and state legislature.

Now that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is begging President Obama to declare a state of emergency over Flint’s water poisoning crisis, maybe it’s time to take a page from the “tough nerd” governor’s own playbook and mandate that, as a condition for any federal financial bailout, Snyder and the Republican legislature who created this emergency agree to be replaced by a federally appointed Emergency Manager with the responsibility and authority to make sure that the mess is cleaned up right.

It wasn’t an act of God or nature that poisoned Flint’s drinking water, nor was it the result of bad decisions or negligence by the city’s own elected but now powerless officials. The April 2014 decision to change the source of Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River and thereby save $5 million, was made as a cost savings measure by one person alone, Darnell Earley, the all-powerful Emergency Manager who was hand-picked to run the struggling city by Snyder.

This is the same Darnell Earley who in January 2015—even as complaints of high bacteria counts, foul odors and taste, discoloration and skin rashes mounted—rejected the City of Detroit’s offer to reconnect Flint to the safe Lake Huron water that supplied the community before Earley’s appointment. And it’s the same Darnell Earley who in January 2015 Snyder subsequently appointed Emergency Manager to run Detroit’s schools, and whose dismal mismanagement led teachers and staff to organize a city-wide sick-out to protest the continuing hazardous and unhealthy building conditions throughout the district.

What the Flint and Detroit schools mismanagement crises highlights is the racist and authoritarian nature of Michigan’s Emergency Manager law that gives the Snyder a free hand to abolish local government in communities of his choosing, effectively nullify the voting rights and electoral decisions of community residents, and replace local elected officials with the equivalent of a colonial administrator answerable only to the Governor.

Michigan’s first emergency manger law (Public Law 101) was enacted under Gov. James Blanchard (D) in 1988 as a means of rescuing financially failing local governments from bankruptcy. The law established narrow grounds for state intervention and provided for the appointment of an Emergency Financial Manager to run the locality’s finances. In subsequent years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, both the triggering criteria for declaring a financial emergency and the powers and authority of the appointed Emergency Manager were broadened incrementally until November 2012 when 52 percent of state’s residents had had their fill of taxation without representation and through citizen referendum voted to veto Snyder’s revised 2011 incarnation of Michigan’s emergency manager law (Public Act 4).

In December 2012, the lame-duck session of the Republican legislature enacted, and Snyder signed into law Public Act 436, a slightly tweaked version of the toughened emergency manager law Michigan residents had voted down less than six weeks earlier.

The legislation provides for the Governor to appoint an “emergency manager” to take over the administrative and governance functions, responsibilities, and authority of local elected officials in communities where the state has determined there is a financial emergency threatening insolvency and the provision of vital government services such as education, water, and public safety and order. According to Snyder’s official press release , the emergency manager legislation was necessary to save communities from the “nightmare scenarios” of water shutoffs, failing schools or disruptions in police protection.

Under the law the appointed Emergency Manager is vested with sweeping powers, including the authority to remove locally elected officials, fire and hire administrators, reject or amend budgets, modify staffing levels and functions in government agencies, and unilaterally alter or terminate provisions governmental contracts, including public employee collective bargaining agreements.

The appointed Emergency Manager is not required to be a resident of the jurisdiction over which he or she presides, and the only qualifications for the job are a minimum of five year’s experience and demonstrable expertise—as determined by the Governor—in “business, financial or local or state budgetary matters.” The Emergency Manager is responsible and answerable to the Governor and no one else.

Of the eight jurisdictions where Snyder has imposed an Emergency Manager, 6 have populations ranging from 41 percent (Flint) to 87 percent  (Highland Park Schools) African American. Of the other two, Hamtramck’s population is 40 percent minority, leaving only the small community of Allen Park with its 93 percent white population as the token non-minority community to be taken over by the state.

By one reckoning, more than 60 percent of Michigan’s African American residents live in jurisdictions under the control of an outside Snyder-appointed Emergency Manager.

During his 2016 State of the State speech, Snyder apologized, sort of, for the mess that he, his hand-picked Emergency Manager, and the state legislature created for the residents of Flint and vowed to fix it. Two days later, appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Snyder reverted to ideological form and by shifting the blame for Flint’s poisoned water on “the culture of government. The department heads were not being given the right information by the experts. These were career civil servants and had strong science, medical backgrounds.  But as a practical matter, when you look at their conclusions, I wouldn’t call them experts anymore.”

It’s like the apocryphal story about the murderer who, convicted of killing his parents, begs the judge for mercy on account of being an orphan.

Snyder has asked President Obama for $96 million in federal emergency disaster relief in addition to the $28 million emergency appropriation requested from the state legislature to deal with Flint’s water crisis. Flint’s elected—but powerless—mayor estimates it will cost $1.5 billion to replace the city’s corroded water pipes. What the additional long term costs of dealing with the health consequences of poisoning Flint’s children are likely to be is anyone’s guess.

But here’s the bottom line. Flint’s water crisis is both a financial and a public health emergency caused by incompetency at the highest level of state government. It is just the kind of emergency that the state’s emergency manager laws were intended to address—except that in this case the incompetency, mismanagement and emergency lie not with local elected officials, but with the governor and state legislature.

So by all means, President Obama should declare Flint and Michigan State Government a disaster area and provide such federal disaster relief as is appropriate and necessary. But along with accepting such funds, the governor and state legislature should be required to submit to the authority of a federally appointed statewide Emergency Manager with the authority to fix Flint’s water crisis, rebuild Detroit’s schools, restore popular control to communities across the state and—while at it—repeal and revoke the state’s racist and anti-democratic emergency manager law for good.

Louis Nayman is a longtime union organizer.

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