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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2016/06/finding-lessons-in-flints-tragedy/

Phil's column

Finding lessons in Flint’s tragedy

FLINT Cover half

It’s rare when just one word can evoke a complex tragedy of human anxiety and suffering, governmental failure and incompetence at all levels, bureaucratic bungling, political exploitation, municipal catastrophe and a systemic breakdown of simple good governance.

But today, we have such a word: Flint.

This is not the first time this has happened. Consider Kent State. Ferguson. Watergate.

These words resonate down the corridors of our history. Over time, they have become milestones in our collective memory, events whose consequences run far beyond the immediate.

They become symbols packed with meaning, markers of time and place, markers of failure and lessons to learn about our system of governance.

Some of us have been fortunate enough – if that’s the right term – to see them at close range. That was the job for us at the Center for Michigan and our online publication, Bridge Magazine, as week by week we traced the myriad twists and turns as the still- ongoing debacle in Flint played out, beginning with the first complaints about the water two years ago.

How could entire Flint neighborhoods suffer for months without relief the brown, fetid water that turned out to be poison, especially to little kids? How could it be that entire layers of government – local, regional, state and national – either failed to understand what was going on or, understanding it all too well, got away too long with systematically trying to cover up their mistakes?

How could it be that politicians of all stripes converted a human and municipal crisis into a convenient punching bag for political gain?

It boggles the mind. The only way we could un-boggle our collective minds at Bridge was to make Flint one of the largest stories of our careers. We squinted our way through thousands of emails, trying to make sense of the story as it mutated … and as nearly every participant tried to spin it to their advantage.

We read with growing astonishment the self-serving messages of indifference from “public servants” at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

We devoted countless hours and 30,000-plus words to teasing out a comprehensive timeline that tracked the story as it grew. We learned how a whole series of state-appointed emergency financial managers followed the financial-only component of their job descriptions and how this blinkered perception shuttered their common sense and professional responsibility. And we realized how state policy over many years had tolerated – even accelerated – the gradual descent into mute poverty and helplessness of what, 40 years ago, had been a thriving manufacturing community.

We profiled the heroes who collectively struggled to make the Flint story into a compound of courage, honesty, dedication and guts: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the local pediatrician who helped uncover the threat of lead poisoning; Professor Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University national expert on drinking water contamination who – with researchers, students and volunteers – proved high levels of lead in tap water. Lee-Anne Walters, the mom from Flint’s south side who noticed hair loss and rashes on her kids and raised hell.

EPA regulator Miguel Del Toral, who risked his career by writing memos telling truth that his superiors tried to suppress.

And we sent our reporters to the front lines of a scared city. They came back with the simple and tragic story that virtually every Flint resident was no longer prepared to trust ANY person in ANY position of governmental authority.

We came to the conclusion that the poisoning of Flint is a cautionary tale for our times – not just for Flint but for countless other communities throughout our land – a tale that questions the assumptions of the effectiveness of government, of a pinchpenny ideology that understood all too well the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and of a political system that insulates bureaucrats and office-holders from accountability.

One of the central policy conclusions that arises from this terrible recital is simple: The question is not whether we need more government or less government. What we desperately need is capable and effective government.

The Center for Michigan is releasing a book next week, “Poison on Tap,” which analyzes details of the Flint story. It brings together our regular reporting into one complete and terrible package that we hope will help remind readers throughout America of what can happen when our institutions start breaking down. And it calls for a wholesale reconsideration of what we are as a country … and how to make it a better place for all.

Copies of “Poison on Tap” may be ordered by going to­ http://bridgemi.com/poison-on-tap/, or for those not on the Internet, by calling 734-769-4625. The price is $20.00 per copy. For every copy sold, a dollar will be contributed by Bridge Magazine and Mission Point Press, the publisher, to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint’s Child Health & Development Fund, which is devoted to treating the lead-poisoned children of Flint.

Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@hcn.net.

14 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Le Roy G. Barnett

    During my quarter-century in state government, I encountered many highly competent people and a few who were not. This mix of public servants is probably no different than the makeup of most civilian families. I notice that the “bureaucrats” adversely involved in the Flint water crisis were all upper echelon people. It makes sense, given human nature, that those who get promoted to high positions are more likely to be sycophants rather than those who speak truth to power.

  2. June Thaden

    Thank you for your coverage about Flint and the deliberate neglect by our State leadership.

    That same leadership is studying and stalling a decision about the 63 year old, twin oil pipelines lying in the bottom of the Straits. Will this be another terrible legacy of the Snyder administration, and the Schuette record as Attorney General?

    When does the risk to the freshwater become more important than the monetary rewards of shipping oil within the freshwater of the Great Lakes?

  3. Bernadette

    Thank you for the comprehensive and objective coverage of the Flint water crisis. The behavior of this current governor is incompetent at the very least, but in a court of law is criminal. I am a reliable voter, and began asking the governor’s office to look into this issue many months before his office even admitted there may be a problem. I have pointed out the arrogance and denial of this administration and legislature many times before, and this continues with the handling of Detroit Public Schools. Your comment is very accurate.

    “The question is not whether we need more government or less government. What we desperately need is capable and effective government.”

    Running a state requires a different set of skills and morals than running a business. Michigan is a failed state created by enormous mismanagement. The rights of citizens are irrelevant over the rights of big business.

  4. J. A. Herzrent

    There ought to be a study (followed by a “Bridge” article) regarding the roles of so-called experts who have lined their pockets over the decades advising governmental “leaders” about dealing with issues such as Flint’s water. Underwriters, CPAs, lawyers, lobbyists, actuaries and consultants have stroked the egos of those who hire them. These experts have created a debt and pension structure that the state and its municipalities cannot sustain. The losers have been and will be the taxpayers … unless they wise up and elect some people who will protect their interests via drastic reform measures. Meanwhile, the infrastructure crumbles along with the education system. The beneficiaries (in addition to the experts) have been public officials and public employees who have pocketed excessive compensation and benefits, with zero accountability for the mess we face in Flint and elsewhere.

  5. Observer

    Mr. Power is absolutely right when he says that the Flint tragedy is a government failure. However, some of his analysis of that failure is off the mark. He says, “How could entire Flint neighborhoods suffer for months without relief the brown, fetid water that turned out to be poison, especially to little kids?” Certainly, at least two levels of government too readily dismissed Flint citizens’ complaints about the quality of their water, but that “brown, fetid water” was not an indicator of the presence of lead. Had the discoloration and bad smell been remedied, the lead would have remained. But the failure to respond to complaints about water quality was a genuine example of the unresponsiveness of government. That resulted from the weakness of the feedback loop (lack of accountability) that is all too typical of government.

    He goes on to say, “We learned how a whole series of state-appointed emergency financial managers followed the financial-only component of their job descriptions and how this blinkered perception shuttered their common sense and professional responsibility.” Suppose that MDEQ had required Flint to treat the Flint river water? Would the decisions of the emergency managers have adversely affected the health of the residents? No. Would it have been reasonable to expect the emergency managers to check whether or not the Flint river water required corrosion treatment? Probably. Had they made such an inquiry, would MDEQ have replied that the water did not need corrosion treatment? Yes. In the process of devoting “countless hours and 30,000-plus words to teasing out a comprehensive timeline that tracked the story as it grew.”, did Bridge find any suggestion, any evidence whatsoever that an emergency manager made a decision to save money at the cost of severely damaging thousands of people?

    “The question is not whether we need more government or less government. What we desperately need is capable and effective government.” Indeed we do need capable, effective government, but what if the amount of resources needed for government to accomplish a given task exceeds what the private sector would require? That would indicate we need smaller government.

  6. duane

    People read into to this what they want to hear.

    I am not sure that anything has been learned from Flint that will prevent it or something similar from happening again. It sounds like finger pointing rather than talking about the root causes and how to prevent them from happening again.

    The questions need to be about why the choices were made, what set the stage to create the string of events that lead to the conditions we have today and why, why needs to be asked until there are no more why’s to be ask. Then we need to discuss what it will take to address those whys so they are prevented from happening again.

    The reality is if a private company created the current situation with the risk to public health that we hear about the government agencies would require a much more in-depth investigation and would impose very severe consequences. We should have those same expectations for the government in this situation.

    The time line of events is valuable, but is just that and not a description of why those events happened.

    Some of the root causes would be why was the emergency manager needed, why weren’t the agencies more forceful in

    1. Bernadette

      I agree with your point of lessons learned and a root cause analysis should be done.

      As a taxpayer and voter in the state of Michigan the lessons I learned is how we no longer have a representative democratic government, so please inclued that in your why questions.

      This tragedy has been created by many years of unbalanced decision making and the voice of all not being included in the conversation. Term limits, polarity between the democrats and republicans and total control of state government by one party highli.ghts a very unhealthy situation.

      1. duane

        The ‘why’ I would ask about our government is why weren’t the agencies reporting to the legislature on the conditions of the Flint water supply. As I understand it the local water department has to regularly test the drinking water and report finding to the state. If this is the case then why isn’t that program reporting to the legislators. Without having the answers I can only speculate, but it does suggest that the legislature is not holding the programs accountable. If that is the case then one possible action could be to develop a set of criteria for assessing candidates for the legislature to include how they have viewed accountability and how they would apply such accountability to government programs and agencies administering those programs. As best I can tell when such findings are required and reviewed and made public it changes the culture of those administering programs [outside and inside government].

        I would like to see the readers of Bridge discuss what the criteria they would use for assessing candidates.

        As for addressing the polarize environment, if we had specific results [with performance metrics] included as part of any program authorizing legislation it would be more difficult to make claims about programs and positions in support or opposed to them. Even the government [regulating agencies] when presented with actual results are even hard pressed to ignore the positions of those delivering the at [or better] expected results.

        Is there a particular item you would like to see included in a candidate assessment criteria?

  7. Sue

    Well, your quote” We had no choice but to make this the biggest story” is really hogwash.

    Please…Flint was in the news in October with huge issues with its water and you, like the other news organizations, were busy with football games, Halloween, Thanksgiving and don’t forget Christmas and the Bowl games.

    When things slowed down and the heat of the presidential election primary riled up, the slow news cycle created Flint. Gosh…you guys jumped on the bandwagon vs. maybe leading the charge in October. Jerry Brown let gas poison the air in California for two months before he called a state of emergency and not one national news organization covered it.

    What about the water issues in Ann Arbor? Did you look at the lead levels in children in Flint in 2012? They were at 7%, down to 3% in 2013 and 2014 and back up to 7% in 2015. Why is Flint now a public outcry? Making it a big news story shows your bias like ever other new organization in this town. I was just hoping that you would be different and do some true investigation.

    1. Rich

      Of course no one covered the California debacle. Jerry Brown is of the party that can do no wrong in the eyes of the media. Gov. Snyder, on the other hand is of the party that does everything wrong in the eyes of the media. Bridge Magazine likes to tout itself as non-partisan, but in fact it is just as one sided as mostly all the other media. Just read the bios of all the Bridge reporters, and the majority are solidly on the side of one party. This comes through loud and clear on everything they write.

  8. Mary

    Some of the people who were exposed to the lead poisoning are still not getting help. Everyone keeps forgetting about the college students. They have gone home for the summer and are still getting zero help. The parents are paying for everything still. Lab testing, etc. What about the foreign exchange students who were exposed. Their parents/government is paying for that persons healthcare. Why isn’t the government taking responsibility for their actions/mistake? These days parents have deductible on their health insurance, so that means they have to pay out of their pocket for all of the healthcare for that child. Where is the government who did this to them? It took over 4 months before the college students were allowed to get water bottles/filters from the government. Are they that stupid they couldn’t figure out Flint has 5 colleges/universities? So this means the parents had to pay for the governments mistake AGAIN!!!!! Who’s going to pay them back? Talk about a bunch of stupid individuals running this state. What a bunch of crooked people.

  9. John

    A cornerstone of good government is a Fourth Estate presence in the form of viable local media with an institutional sense of responsibility to watchdog local officials. Local businesses have a powerful relationship to this function. Use it!

    John

  10. Matt

    “We learned how a whole series of state-appointed emergency financial managers followed the financial-only component of their job descriptions and how this blinkered perception shuttered their common sense and professional responsibility.”

    If the emergency financial managers had not wandered off and out of their job description of looking at balancing Flint’s operational revenues (taxes and fees) and expenses, and into the capital investment (making multi-million dollar investments for a new water source) and operational details of a municipal water system (what chemicals should or shouldn’t be added), this whole issue never would have happened! I am confused with your meaning or interpretation of this as it sounds the opposite of what you state.

    “We came to the conclusion that …. the effectiveness of government, of a pinchpenny ideology that understood all too well the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and of a political system that insulates bureaucrats and office-holders from accountability.” Please tell me what bureaucracy doesn’t provide cover to deflect, hide and insulate its members from responsibility and accountability. Sounds to me that you’re unhappy that people do what people do, and always will, particularly in large organizations. This isn’t limited to just government but because we’re forced to participate and contribute seems all the more disagreeable. Your lessons to be learned seem very unclear.

  11. Vincent Caruso

    The take away is don’t elect psychopathic candadates. This would be much easer if politicians didn’t select their voters as they do now in Michigan and, why we need to stop Gerrymandering in our Great State of Michigan.

    Thanks to those who stood up to the state and federal leaders who had no empathy for those who were suffering, even the children. They put it all on the line and are our heroes. More house cleaning is clearly needed.

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