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.