Running deeper than water DEMOCRACY IN FLINT, MICHIGAN

When we think of the Flint Water Crisis, we think of—no surprise—water. We think of a tragic decision that caused the poisoning of thousands of residents. But do we think of dictatorships? Do we think of loss of democracy? Perhaps the average person does not, but for the residents of Flint, these factors are impossible to ignore when talking about lead in Flint’s water. The crisis in Flint is not one instance of lead piping gone wrong, but rather an instance of governance gone wrong. A unique law in Michigan allows for local governments to be controlled not by their elected officials, but by state-appointed “emergency managers” in times of financial crisis. A series of emergency managers have governed in Flint since 2002, and it was under their watch that the city’s water became poisoned with lead.

The history of emergency management

Emergency management in Michigan began in 1988 through Public Act 101, which allowed the state to create an emergency financial manager position in Hamtramck, MI, to bring it out of financial emergency. Multiple revisions to this original law have allowed for emergency managers to be appointed to any local government unit, and later to any school district, giving them complete power to govern, just as any elected official would. Today, four emergency managers are in place throughout the state, controlling Detroit Public Schools, Muskegon Heights School District, and Highland Park Schools.

Recent outcry in Michigan has centered around Public Acts 4 and 436, which expand the original provisions of the emergency manager law. Enacted in 2011 by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, PA 4 states that, with the instatement of an emergency manager, “the governing body and the chief administrative officer of the local government may not exercise any of the powers of those offices”, unless the emergency manager says they may do so in writing (1). The emergency manager can even prohibit a local government employee or official from accessing their office facilities, email or internal information systems. In order to be an emergency manager, an individual needs only five years experience and expertise in either business, financial or local and state budget matters. The emergency manager does not need to be a resident of the area they are managing and does not need to have government experience.

Snyder’s Public Act 4 of 2011 was repealed by Michigan voters in the November 2012 election, with 52 percent of voters in favor. Activist and Flint resident Claire McClinton explained Michigan voters’ decision was “because the people of Michigan believe in democracy. We don’t like dictatorship over there. We are a proud state, with a rich union history, a rich civil rights history. We are a humanitarian state. We don’t believe in somebody coming in, ruling us, humiliating us, telling us we don’t know how to run our cities” (2). But despite those strong sentiments, lawmakers found another avenue through which to pass PA 4—in a slightly revised version called PA 436. This act was signed into law in December 2012, just a few weeks after voters rejected PA 4. Although PA 436 is overall not much different than PA 4, it allows for a bit more agency on the part of the local government. Under this version of the law, emergency managers can be removed after 18 months in office, with a 2/3 vote of the governing body of local government, and, if the government has a “strong mayor”, with that mayor’s approval. But that small change did not satiate McClinton, who refers to Snyder as “Dictator in Chief” for imposing this act.

The ability for state government to supersede local government is not entirely unique to Michigan. Harrisburg, PA, Atlantic City, NJ, Nassau County, NY, and many other cities have been under state control while in dire financial straits. But what sets Michigan apart from these other cities is the power the state has over local governments. Rather than just be able to control their pocketbooks, emergency managers “have the ability to modify and nullify public union contracts, ban new collective bargaining, negotiate new binding contracts on behalf of the city, [and] dispose of (sell, lease, give away) municipal assets” (3). They can entirely upheave local governments and bar government employees or officials from entering government buildings, or accessing electronic mail and internal information systems.

The immense control emergency managers can wield has led many Michigan residents to deem the law “authoritarian and anti-democratic", and they have good evidence to support that claim (4). In 2009, for instance, the emergency manager of Pontiac, MI, sold the Pontiac Silverdome, home to the Detroit Lions, for $583,000—about one percent of the $55.7 million it cost to build the stadium in 1975--without any community input. Pontiac’s EM then proceeded to fire 90 percent of city employees from 2009-2011 in an effort to cut costs. In February 2012, the emergency financial manager of Detroit Public Schools announced the closing of ten schools, including one for the deaf. With these examples in mind, the Flint Water crisis can no longer be categorized as an isolated incident -- many argue it’s another symptom of Michigan’s flawed system of governance.

Racializing management

The text of Public Acts 4 and 436 reads that their intent is to “safeguard and assure the fiscal accountability of local government” and protect the “health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this state”, which would be “materially and adversely affected by the insolvency of local governments” if left to govern themselves without state assistance (5). But despite the seeming sincerity with which the law was created, emergency management has highly racialized implications. Cities under emergency management contain only nine percent of Michigan’s population, but account for about half the state’s black residents, a fact which prompted Chris Lewis from The Atlantic to state that, “in Michigan, emergency skews black” (6). This fact begs the question of who is deserving of democracy, and who needs to be “managed.” Does the state treat poor majority white cities the same as majority black cities?

According to L. Owen Kirkpatrick and Nate Breznau, no. They conducted a study on the instances of emergency management across Michigan and found that race, controlling for the fiscal conditions of an area, is a statistically significant factor in determining the presence of an emergency manager. The dominant narrative presented by the state suggests the emergency manager law is colorblind, assigning financial interventions solely based on the fiscal situation of a given area, not the demographics. Their study disproves this claim -- and strongly. Their regressions show that “the odds of intervention in a local political unit… increase by 50% for every 10 percentage-point increase in the local black population” (3). These findings suggest that “the State is more willing to implement EFI [Emergency Political Intervention] in majority black cities, or put another way, the State is hesitant to implement EPI when a majority are white” (3).

This trend is palpable in cities like Flint, which has been heavily managed and (coincidentally?) has a 52 percent African American population. Black activists have called out the link between emergency management and patrolling of black bodies in Flint. The Root, a black interest publication, argued that, “Flint’s poisoning is one effect of the systematic stripping of black civil rights in Michigan” (7). And in February 2016, the NAACP listed the repeal of the emergency manager law as first in its 20 steps that ought to be taken to address the needs of Flint residents (8). More than bottled water, what the black citizens of Flint have called for is an undoing of the law that ensures their disenfranchisement.

A series of unfortunate decisions

Flint boasts the title of Michigan’s most managed city, having been imposed with six emergency managers since 2002, with four ruling the city in a span of less than three years. Ed Kurtz, Michael Brown, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose managed the city from 2012-2015, and all had some involvement in the decisions that led to the eventual poisoning of the people of Flint.

Flint’s water became tainted with lead as a result of switching the water sources the city relied on. Flint had historically gotten its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which provided a clean and reliable, albeit costly, source. City leadership had been in conversation with several counties throughout Michigan as early as 2010 to discuss the creation of a new water source, the Karegnondi Regional Water Authority, which would be established to distribute water from Lake Huron to cities throughout the state. On March 25, 2013, the Flint City Council-- which comprises elected officials-- voted 7-1 to join the Karegnondi Regional Water Authority, which would be constructed in the future. Then-emergency manager Ed Kurtz approved this decision, signing off on an order to “[use] the Flint River as a primary drinking water source for approximately two years and then converting to KWA delivered lake water when available” on June 26, 2013 (9). This decision would save the city $5 million, an attractive prospect for a financially struggling area. The elected officials of Flint’s city council did not have a say in this decision to use Flint’s water as an interim source. In 2014, the Detroit water authority made an offer to Flint to provide water to the city in the wait before the KWA was constructed, but this offer was rejected by emergency manager Darnell Earley in March, who said the city would switch to Flint water in April of that year (10). The decision to do so ultimately proved disastrous: the Flint River is a highly corrosive water source, and no anti-corrosive agent was added to the water, resulting in the leaching of iron and lead from old pipes.

Finding fault in Flint

Ed Kurtz was the original decision maker in this scenario—he signed an order on March 29, 2013 for Flint to eventually use KWA water once the pipes were finished. On June 26, 2013, Kurtz signed an order to authorize the use of the Flint River as an interim water source. But it wasn’t until April 25, 2014, that the switch was actually made, at which point Darnell Earley had taken over position as emergency manager. Many point to Earley as the one “most to blame” for the water crisis, but he upholds that he only carried out the actions decided by his predecessors months before (11). “It did not fall to me to second guess or to invalidate the actions that were taken prior to my appointment,” Earley said in a statement (12). Earley was appointed to serve as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools in January 2015, leaving Gerald Ambrose as the emergency manager of Flint. At DPS, Earley was heavily criticized for his involvement in the Flint crisis and for the crumbling conditions of schools. In similar fashion to Flint, his response to this criticism was, “I can’t speak as to why things are as I found them" (13).

Whether or not we believe that Earley is culpable for either of these situations, his statements point to an underlying problem with emergency managers: the constantly shifting leadership promoted by the law makes unaccountability a near certainty and complicates transitions of governance. Perhaps it is not Earley’s fault that Flint switched water sources or that DPS schools are deteriorating, but then whose is it? Emergency managers are easily able to shirk blame in a given situation by arguing that they were not in power when a decision was made, or, even if they were in power when a decision was made, that they did not see the decision through. In the case of Flint, then, it makes more sense not to point blame at Earley, at Kurtz, or at any individual, but rather at the system that put these individuals in power. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a democrat from Virginia, told Snyder just this at a hearing of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform committee, saying that the Flint crisis “is a failure of a philosophy of governance that you advocate" (14). It seems EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy would agree with Connolly, as she slammed Snyder’s emergency manager law as the underlying culprit behind the Flint tragedy. At the same hearing, McCarthy argued, “The crisis we’re seeing was the result of a state-appointed emergency manager deciding that the city would stop purchasing treated water and instead switch to an untreated source to save money" (15). The only mistake of the EPA in this situation, she argued, was in being “so trusting of the state for so long" (15).

Snyder, by contrast, points blame at the EPA, whose Lead and Copper Rule he says is “dumb and dangerous” (15). If the rule is not strengthened, “then this tragedy will befall other American cities”, he argued in his testimony to a congressional committee (15). But many Flint residents disagree with Snyder’s evaluation of the situation. For them, this isn’t a matter of a crumbling lead pipe infrastructure. It’s a matter of a crumbling system of governance throughout Michigan that allowed an individual to value saving money over a population’s health. One Flint resident, Claire McClinton, agrees with the governor that the Flint problem could radiate out to the rest of the country, but she does not see the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule as the issue. She blames Public Act 436. While speaking at a climate rally in Indiana, McClinton warned her audience to “wake up and see this fascist danger arising in Michigan, because what happens in Michigan won’t stay in Michigan, unless all of us come together and act” (2). McClinton fears that the “dictatorship” that occurred in Michigan may spread to other parts of the country without action.

McClinton is justified in calling the entire system of emergency managers into question. The ideological reasoning of having emergency managers comes from the fact that, “because EMs are not beholden to local democratic constraints, it is reasoned, they are able to more efficiently settle the accounts of deeply indebted cities. Democratically accountable officials, by contrast, are unable to make the “tough decisions” that would optimize a city’s debt position, for fear of being voted out of office by angry constituents” (3). But perhaps some democratic accountability was needed in Flint. Because EMs did not have to worry about reelection or being voted out of office, they did not have to take into consideration the potential impact their decisions would have on the Flint community, and could instead concentrate on their top priority: saving money. The decision to save $5 million by switching to the Flint River ultimately ended up costing the city $45 million -- pointing to a flaw in EMs mentalities, which emphasize “running government like business” and valuing short-term savings over what may be best for their community in the long run (16). An elected official, by contrast, would likely value the health and safety of their residents above cost concerns, and therefore might have ensured more measures were taken to make the Flint River drinkable. It’s impossible to say whether the same situation would have unfolded had Flint been governed by elected officials as opposed to emergency managers. What’s certain is that priorities look very different for elected officials than they do for EMs -- perhaps, in this case, those priorities are what would have made the difference.

Fighting to be seen

Citizens in Flint and across the state of Michigan have waged battles to fight the systemic issues that plague their communities, and to make their struggles visible to society. Their lives have for so long been dominated by invisibility: the invisibility of the lead that poisons them, or their own invisibility to Michigan politicians, who often ignore the needs of disenfranchised citizens.

Historian Gabrielle Hecht discusses invisibility as it relates to toxicity, arguing that toxicity becomes invisible sometimes from “deliberate decisions, sometimes from structural suppression, sometimes from the tangle of both” (17). In Michigan, invisibility is very much a tangled matter. Politicians’ decisions can render citizens’ struggles invisible, like when Michigan’s government officials suppressed conversations of lead in the water and drank glasses of it to prove it was safe. But decisions can so often be made out of structural suppression, as well: Michigan lawmakers who decide to place an emergency manager in a predominantly black city are both consciously deciding to do so, and are likely influenced by systemic ideas about blacks that might inform their decisions. Invisibility therefore perpetuates in Michigan based on the decisions of individuals, as well as the systemic factors that lie beneath those decisions.

Maintaining invisibility-- in the case that Hecht discusses, of radon gas in South Africa-- seems as if it may happen naturally through a lack of awareness: don’t talk about something for long enough, and it’ll become invisible. But fabricating invisibility takes lots of work, Hecht argues. In Michigan, black citizens, and others who are managed by the state, are rendered invisible through the tireless work of politicians who pass laws like PA 4 or 436 to control their communities. It takes immense energy to write a law, and even more to push it through despite the fact that citizens repealed it, as was the case with PA 4 in Michigan. The invisibility of many of Michigan’s most vulnerable citizens therefore perpetuates because the political system perpetuates their erasure. When citizens cannot vote for the officials who will lead their cities, they become invisible. When citizens’ cries of lead poisoning are met with indifference and disbelief by politicians, they become invisible. The existence of emergency managers throughout the state of Michigan has forced citizens into invisibility, leaving their struggles ignored and their rights forgotten.

"How can you fight for democracy when you don't have clean water?" -Claire McClinton (above)

The issue with Flint does not stop with water or with lead, making the now famous title of the “Flint Water Crisis” somewhat of a misnomer. The tragedy that gained so much attention this year is just one way in which citizens of Michigan—particularly impoverished citizens of color—are systematically subjugated. The presence of emergency managers across the state points to a flawed system of governance, to a racialized controlling of black bodies, and to a propensity toward economically expedient decisions over communities’ needs.

This crisis raises serious implications about the future of Flint and the future of Michigan. Under emergency management, a similar situation can happen again, leaving citizens powerless to fight against an undemocratically appointed official. The solution for Flint will not come in the form of bottled water, nor in the form of fixed water infrastructure. The political infrastructure of Michigan is the one that needs repair, and until such time, another Flint is always possible.

Works cited

1) Pscholka, A. (2011, March 16). Enrolled house bill No. 4214. Retrieved from

2) McClinton, C. (2016, May 15). Personal communication.

3) Kirkpatrick, L. O., & Breznau, N. (2016). The (non)politics of emergency political intervention: The racial Geography of urban crisis management in Michigan. Retrieved from

4) Brayton, E. (2012, May 16). How Michigan’s emergency manager law guarantees corruption. Patheos. Retrieved from

5) Local financial stability and choice act. (2012). Retrieved from

6) Lewis, C. (2013, May 9). Does Michigan’s emergency manager law disenfranchise black citizens? The Atlantic. Retrieved from

7) Welburn, J. & Seamster, L. (2016, January 9). How a racist system has poisoned the water in Flint, Mich. The Root. Retrieved from

8) NAACP releases 20-point list of priorities to address the needs of Flint residents. (2016, February 15). NAACP. Retrieved from

9) Kurtz, E. Resolution authorizing approval to enter into a professional engineering services contract for the implementation of placing the Flint water plant into operation. (2013, June 26). Retrieved from

10) Earley, D. RE: DWSD Water Rates. (2014, March 7). Retrieved from

11) Savage, C. (2016, January 15). Why is the man most to blame for the #FlintWaterCrisis, Darnell Earley, still the emergency manager of Detroit schools? Eclectablog. Retrieved from

12) Fonger, R. (2015, October 13). Ex-emergency manager says he’s not to blame for water switch. mLive. Retrieved from

13) Hardin, A. K. (2016, February 17). Gov. Snyder and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad law. Democracy Tree. Retrieved from

14) Dolan, M. & Egan, P. (2016, March 17). Gov. Rick Snyder admits emergency management failed in Flint water crisis. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from

15) Dolan, M. & Egan, P. (2016, March 17). Who’s at fault in Flint water crisis? Rick Snyder, EPA’s McCarthy to clash. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from ·

16) Mohler, J. (2016, January 29). Proof that Snyder’s emergency management is to blame in Flint. In the Public Interest. Retrieved from

17) Hecht, G. (2012). "The Work of Invisibility: Radiation Hazards and Occupational Health in South African Uranium Production" International Labor and Working­ Class History 81: 94­-113.

Images cited

1) Headline: Gunderson, K. (2006). Churning Seattle.

2) “Racializing management”: Monae, J. (2016, February 9). Pitchfork.

3) “Water for Life”: Garza, R. (2015, January 21). Detroit, MI: Detroit Free Press.

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