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Gov. Rick Snyder’s prospects
after the Flint water crisis

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Illustration by Zach Kozdron

Illustration by Zach Kozdron

Compiled by Kyle Poplin | Photos by Benjamin Weatherston

Flint has been on hard times since the ’80s, when General Motors began downsizing its massive auto plant there. In 2011, the state of Michigan took over Flint’s finances after an audit projected a $25 million deficit. To cut costs in 2014, an emergency manager, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, approved switching the city’s water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the notoriously polluted Flint River. Immediately after the switch, customers complained about the smell, taste and appearance of the water coming from their faucets. Their complaints fell on deaf ears. As it turned out, improperly treated Flint River water corroded old pipes and leached dangerous lead and copper into people’s drinking water. Since then, it’s been one misstep after another, with the state grudgingly forced to admit Flint was in an emergency, while deflecting as much blame as possible to city and federal officials. Since Snyder makes Ann Arbor his home, we asked several people to give their thoughts on the governor’s handling of the Flint water crisis, and to predict his political future.

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Timothy R. Damschroder

Timothy R. Damschroder

No time for the blame game

The author, Timothy R. Damschroder, is a local lawyer, lifelong Ann Arborite and volunteer.

Let’s set the tone. The left has waited nearly five years for an opportunity to vilify Gov. Snyder. He has done a tremendous job turning the state around from a time of high unemployment and bloated budgets to a very strong economy and a state government with a surplus. He is a results-oriented taskmaster who has based his administration on making our state government service-friendly. He has not been afraid to tackle the difficult issues of our state, including the decades-old fiscal problems of cities of Detroit and Flint (and others) that previous governors had ignored.

As to the specific question of whether Rick Snyder has responsibility for the Flint water crisis, the answer is yes. No one questions that “the buck stops” on his desk, least of all Snyder himself. A strong leader is someone who acknowledges mistakes and does everything possible to rectify the situation. The list of the governor’s actions since he learned of the debacle is extensive: access to clean water, health care, infrastructure, food and nutrition, social and well-being and financial support in the form of water bill credits. As any good leader should, the governor has been very open to all constructive sources to find workable solutions. We need leaders who solve problems, not politicians who heave out blame at every corner and promise unworkable solutions.

To call the governor a “criminal” and vilify him does nothing but perpetuate the caustic political environment that we all live in today. I am saddened by the fact that those focusing all of their efforts on the blame game will not use their energy to fix the problems in Flint instead of trying to advance their political ideologies. It is absurd to think that Rick Snyder wishes anyone harm or is in any way criminally responsible for the horrific decisions made by the former workers who actually pulled the switches that caused water from the Flint River to flow through lead pipes without first treating the water with the proper anti-corrosion chemicals. Personally, I do not want a governor whose expertise is in the arcane details of how to treat drinking water. I do want a governor who doesn’t play the blame game and whose expertise enables him decisively to lead state and local authorities in addressing problems faced by the people of the state of Michigan.

My advice to Gov. Snyder is to continue taking decisive actions, include all constructive experts in the decision-making process (no matter their party affiliation or political leaning) and utilize all available resources. Stay above the fray and focus on solving the problem.

In the long run, the governor’s legacy will be that he cured many of our state’s long-term problems that were ignored by so many politicians. During his first campaign, he often stated that he would likely be a one-term governor because he was willing to make the tough decisions necessary to get our state back on track. He has never cared about politics or getting credit. In the end, his tremendous accomplishments will outweigh his mistakes.

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Susan Fecteau

Susan Fecteau

Some concrete advice

The author, Susan Fecteau, is an Ann Arbor resident and concerned mother who has written several messages to Snyder in chalk on downtown sidewalks.

I believe Gov. Rick Snyder is completely responsible for the Flint water crisis. He boasted and prided himself on being involved in every level of his administration. He was “one tough nerd.” The people who pulled the strings reported directly to him. He’s the head of the state, all offices, all officials. He’s the one who set the tone and the culture. He appointed the emergency manager. He’s the one on a campaign to privatize government services.

But first he cuts and slashes staff in the name of “tough management.” The unfortunate outcome is that bare bones staff can’t do their jobs properly, like protect our health and provide human services. He wants to run the state government like a business. I don’t think that’s any way to take care of people. What happened in Flint is the result of his approach to management.

I don’t think Mr. Snyder is the least bit interested in what I have to say on the matter. I don’t believe he really cares what the people think. However, that’s why I started chalking messages on the sidewalks around his home. Clearly those he has chosen as his advisers, the people he’s surrounded himself with, have not been helping him since he’s made such a mess of so many things. Flint is just the worst example.

I started chalking messages on the sidewalks of things I wanted to say to him, that I hoped he’d see and take pause. As a mother, the poisoning of children struck a chord with me. I didn’t know what I could do to help, but at least I could give him a piece of my mind!

My first messages — I guess you could call them my “advice” — were for him to stop coming to Ann Arbor and move to Flint to focus on the problem, to release all the emails, to admit he failed and to resign. Additionally, I wanted him to change his course, to STOP running the state of Michigan like a business. The messages since then have gotten into more details, like replacing the pipes, stop giving tax cuts to corporations, stop buying elaborate cakes for private parties while the people of Flint are suffering, pay for his own personal legal defense, admit the truth, etc.

As for the governor’s future, I think his career in public office is over. Who could possibly ever trust him? I hope his future includes jail time. If it is found that he really didn’t break any laws and is not a criminal, then we have lots of work to do to change the laws. How do we hold public officials accountable? We cannot ever let something like this happen again.

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Claire Bryan, Regan Detwiler and Jeremy Kaplan

Claire Bryan, Regan Detwiler and Jeremy Kaplan

A subversion of democracy

The authors — Claire Bryan, Regan Detwiler and Jeremy Kaplan — are member of The Michigan Daily’s Editorial Board.

Two months into his first gubernatorial term, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 4 — a law that would allow him to delegate total control over a democratically elected municipal government in the event the state government decided it was financially insolvent. Snyder utilized this bill in 2011, and the crisis in Flint is a direct result of the subversion of municipal democracy under this law.

It’s been easy for Gov. Rick Snyder to say in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis discovery that all levels of government failed. He’s technically right. The Environmental Protection Agency should have stepped in sooner to raise the alarm about lead levels in Flint, and Flint’s powerless mayor shouldn’t have defended the state when residents complained of dirty water. Yet throughout this crisis, one thing has been clear to us: Whatever role these institutions had in perpetuating the crisis, we would not be having this conversation today had it not been for Snyder’s irresponsible decision to pull democracy out of the hands of Flint’s citizens.

Elected representatives might have had the forethought to know that running a cheaper water source through lead pipes 19 times more corrosive than their previous source was not the best for their constituency’s health. Or they might have switched back to Detroit water when residents started complaining of foul-tasting water and rashes. But Snyder’s appointed representatives did none of these things because the only thing they were accountable for was the spreadsheet showing Flint was saving money.

What’s been done is done, and while we as an editorial board have called for Michigan residents to recall Snyder, he remains in power today. Snyder should take an initial step to alleviate concerns by promising to accept the requirement that the Families of Flint Act proposes: that federal money appropriated to assist with the disaster be matched by state funds. This promise will alleviate concerns that Snyder is trying to kick the problem to the federal government. Additionally, Snyder should make it a priority to address the grave injustice of Flint residents’ water bills. Still today, Flint residents have outstanding bills for water they refused to pay because the water was not safe to drink. While Flint’s government recently announced it will suspend charging for water until next month and though Snyder has put money on the table to pay for past bills, this initiative needs to receive greater focus in the months ahead.

If there’s anything we can take solace in, it’s the outpouring of statewide and nationwide support that Flint has received. While this crisis was the result of the subversion of democracy by one, it will be solved by the support of many.

• • •

Members of the Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives | Contributed photo

Members of the Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives | Contributed photo

Snyder a fit for ‘Klan Arbor’

The authors are Maryam Aziz and other members of the Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives.

We hold Rick Snyder, as governor, responsible for the water crisis in Flint. However, we also believe that he is part of a larger administration of policymakers who lack accountability for participating in a complacent, capitalist state that systematically devalues black lives and the lives of those living in poverty. We hold Snyder accountable as the head of a state administration that denied the Flint water crisis for two years.

We also hold Snyder responsible for appointing Darnell Earley as Flint’s emergency manager, whom he then appointed to the Detroit Public Schools. This emergency management tactic, and specifically its deployment through Earley, failed in both cities. In February, Earley finally resigned, being pressured by a class action suit relating to his mismanagement in Flint. As his supervisor, Snyder should also resign.

Furthermore, we hold Snyder responsible for continuing and expanding emergency management in Michigan. One of his first actions in office was to pass legislation that expanded the emergency manager’s authority: the notorious Public Act 4. The state-appointed emergency managers are not democratically elected and have not proven useful. Local citizens have no input in their hiring or dismissal. The majority of the locals who were denied the basic, democratic right to vote were black.

Lastly, we hold Snyder responsible for being aware of the crisis and not caring about it, or for being a willfully ignorant cog in an uncaring system. Both options indicate a lack of competency and accountability. Still, we emphasize that Earley, local politicians and everyone in Snyder’s administration are culpable as well.

If the organizers of A3BL were his advisers, we would advise him to turn himself and the rest of the administration in, given that they do not serve the people and committed criminal acts against them. But before that, we would advise him to go to Flint and actually listen to people, as well as dig up the pipes and rebuild the water system and its infrastructure. Lastly, he  should stop allowing Nestle to profit off community resources and stop welcoming them and other water-bottling and fracking corporations to bottle up and contaminate the world’s largest freshwater supply.

Ironically, it is fitting that Snyder has tried, at times, to hide away in Ann Arbor during the crisis. He is good company in this white, liberal, university town where the mayor thinks that murdering Aura Rosser in her own home had nothing to do with race and where patrons of progressive white spaces feel justified in physically attacking peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators. He is just another reason the city’s relationship to black lives has earned it the moniker Klan Arbor.

• • •

James Militzer

James Militzer

Reconsidering an ideology

The author, James Militzer, is a writer, editor and videographer.

Governor Snyder and his administration are responsible for this debacle from start to finish. His huge corporate tax cuts and reduced revenue sharing to cities helped set the stage for massive spending cuts in Flint, which he imposed by means of an emergency manager law that he passed against the will of Michigan voters. In an attempt to save money, the Snyder-appointed manager selected the toxic Flint River as the source for the city’s water, then failed to make the modest investment in water treatment that could have prevented the corrosion that released the lead.

For months, as the crisis unfolded, Snyder’s administration ignored or downplayed citizens’ complaints about dangerously contaminated water. The buck clearly stops with him.

If I were Snyder’s adviser, I’d tell him to reconsider his ideology. Remember when the Obamacare website crashed? Immediately, conservatives trumpeted it as decisive proof that the president, his health-care law and liberalism itself were hopeless failures. They treated it as vindication of their core belief: When it comes to government, smaller is always better. Yet a few months later, the site was working fine, and since then Obamacare has brought America’s uninsured rate to its lowest level in recorded history.

If Snyder and his fellow conservatives approach it with a bit of humility, the Flint debacle could provide a far more teachable moment. By nickel-and-diming city government (among other priorities) to enable massive tax breaks for corporations, Snyder’s policies have permanently damaged the health and development of thousands of children, and may have taken several lives. And to top it all off, he failed to save any money in the process. To cut a few million dollars from Flint’s water bill, Snyder provoked a crisis that will likely cost taxpayers hundreds of millions in legal damages alone, above and beyond the tragic human cost.

Snyder is a smart guy. He should consider the possibility that liberals have a point: investing in public services and infrastructure helps our state more than tax breaks for the wealthy.

As for the future, it holds the same thing for Snyder as for most failed politicians — he’ll limp through the rest of his term, then find a lucrative gig in consulting or something. Yet his actions have decimated a struggling city and its most vulnerable residents, and Flint will be dealing with the fallout for decades to come. In future years, any discussion of Snyder’s legacy will certainly begin — and may even end — with Flint.

• • •

Mary Morgan

Mary Morgan

Thinking beyond the outrage

The author, Mary Morgan, is founder and executive director of the CivCity Initiative, whose mission is “to expand Ann Arbor residents’ knowledge of how local government works, and to increase participation in civic life through education, information and outreach.”

Responding to the Flint water crisis, many Ann Arbor residents have added their voices to the chorus condemning Gov. Rick Snyder for his failure to recognize and deal with the situation effectively. It’s a deserved and withering criticism directed not just at Snyder but also his staff, state bureaucrats and the Legislature.

But a call for accountability is an easy refrain to repeat when we’re backed by a choir already singing the same tune. What’s more challenging is to break a silence and hold a note all by ourselves.

It’s even more difficult when the venue is not statewide but local, and the audience is made up of people we bump into when we pick up our kids from school, or shop for groceries or drink a beer at a neighborhood bar. Local elected and appointed officials are typically people we know, are fond of and respect. And that sets an easy tempo for tolerance — for a kind of mild corruption that eventually can lead to dysfunctional governance and even human tragedy.

So when we don’t hold local officials accountable for making misleading statements, crossing from spin to misrepresentation, violating open government laws, or breaking a public body’s own internal rules, then we’re part of the problem. And too often we ignore, dismiss or ridicule people who are willing to pipe up and say, “That’s not right.” Or worse, we shout them down.

We have a right to expect that our government will work on our behalf, especially for our most vulnerable residents. Defending that right depends on an ability to hold government accountable.

But do we bother to stay informed enough to hold officials accountable, especially at the local level? How can we as citizens hold them accountable if we don’t live up to a basic responsibility to pay attention to what our elected leaders are doing?

It’s easy to feel informed and involved when you’re fueled by outrage or passion. And it’s easy to feel like you’re “taking action” when you post an indignant comment on Facebook, “like” someone else’s tweet or sign an online petition. But surely our responsibility extends beyond that.

Transformation of our civic culture could begin with some basic questions: Do I know who’s making decisions that affect my community? Do I even know enough about their actions to hold them accountable? How can I become better informed? What am I doing to contribute to my community’s civic health? Why do I think it’s somebody else’s job and not mine?

Pay attention, and not just when you’re pissed off. Start at the local level, where you have the most influence. If we develop a habit of civic engagement — if that’s the chorus we join — then we have a much better shot at ensuring a crisis like we’re seeing in Flint never happens again.

• • •

Edward Sidlow

Edward Sidlow

Trade Snyder for Calley?

The author, Edward Sidlow, is a political science professor at Eastern Michigan University who writes and speaks frequently about American politics.

Certainly an argument could be made for calling for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder. It would be fair to suggest that if his administration were working in the private sector in a leadership capacity, and his company or unit or department was responsible for a failure comparable in scope to what has occurred in Flint, he would either be asked to resign or be dismissed by anyone who had authority over him. Where the public sector is concerned, we are fairly quick to look back through a rose-tinted prism to Harry Truman, and “the buck stops here.” And finally, many of us feel a fair amount of righteous indignation because we are so secure in our belief that if this disaster occurred in Ann Arbor, Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe, the actions taken by state government would have been more immediate and successful.

However, when my undergraduate students become hypercritical of some action taken by an elected official, I’m very quick to ask, “How’s the view from the cheap seats?” I think it’s more than a little presumptuous for us to assume we know all the facts that led to this monumental screw-up, portions of which can be laid, no doubt, at several doorsteps. That gives me pause to start screaming for resignations.

To those who are calling for the governor’s resignation, I would like to ask, what is the goal here? Do those who might force the governor’s resignation really believe they’re going to be better served by the lieutenant governor? Would the state benefit in any way, in the eyes of those wishing the governor gone, if Rick Snyder were traded in for Brian Calley? If the goal is to punish Mr. Snyder, then I suppose removing him from his office would meet that goal. Would that do anything at all to solve the problem in Flint?

If the current political season has taught us anything, it is that nothing in politics should surprise us. I think I am still capable of being surprised — or perhaps my naïveté is showing — but I do believe the Flint tragedy will end Rick Snyder’s political career. Whether or not he serves out the rest of his term, I suspect he will, if he wishes, return to the lucrative business career that he enjoyed before his life in politics.

As a final thought, I would suggest to those who wish the governor to step down for largely partisan reasons, be careful what you wish for. It would be foolish as a political strategy to turn the current lieutenant governor into an incumbent governor for the next gubernatorial election. Clearly Gov. Snyder is wounded politically, and keeping him in office might make it easier for the Democratic Party to craft a successful campaign as his term expires.

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