It is no secret that Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is not a fan of democracy. Two months into his first gubernatorial term, he signed Public Act 4 — a bill 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 to appoint a financial emergency manager over the city of Flint, leading to a string of decisions overseen by Snyder that ultimately led to the water crisis decimating Flint today. As we’ve seen the crisis unfold, Snyder has taken democracy away from Flint and in the process ruined lives. Michigan voters must make their voices heard for justice in Flint by supporting a recall of Gov. Snyder.
Tuesday night, Snyder delivered his State of the State address, dedicating much of his speech time to the Flint Water Crisis. Snyder acknowledged the mistakes he and his administration have made, but made a number of concerning points regarding how he views the timeline of the disaster. Snyder began his overview of events by pointing to the Flint city council’s March 2013 vote, with emergency manager approval in April, to switch the city of Flint’s water supply to the Karegnondi Water Authority, a municipal cooporation Flint was a founding member of, but still under construction. Entirely absent from this discussion, however, was the chain of decisions that led to Flint’s switch from Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River as an interim source. While it is true that Flint’s city council did democratically approve the switch to the KWA, there is no evidence showing the decision to use the Flint River as an interim source was made in any democratic manner, and instead was made by Snyder’s appointee. This misleading statement is characteristic of the governor’s handling of the disaster in Flint.
Despite a majority of Michigan voters in 2012 voting to overturn Public Act 4, Snyder signed a modified version of the law a few weeks later, giving more options to local municipalities declared insolvent than just emergency management. But the choice of whether or not stay under emergency management was not given to the people of Flint or other Michigan cities previously under emergency management prior to the modified law. They were left under the authority of whomever Snyder chose to appoint, with no control over the actions of their own local governments. When Snyder chose to defy the will of the people who elected him, he signaled that the responsibility for what would happen next would fall solely on his shoulders.
Now it’s January 2016, and Snyder is just beginning to deal with the consequences of his inaction. It has been a year since Flint was found in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act, yet Snyder’s appointee Darnell Earley told Flint citizens it would be too expensive to switch back to Detroit water. It’s been six months since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expressed concern over lead levels in Flint’s water, yet Snyder’s administration told everyone to relax in July 2015. It’s been four months since pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha raised alarm about rising lead levels in vulnerable Flint children’s blood, yet Snyder’s administration has just begun to mobilize a significant response to the crisis, with President Barack Obama most recently agreeing to declare the situation a state of emergency.
Snyder’s inaction on this issue — despite forcefully installing himself as the only elected official responsible for the people of Flint — has left us with no confidence that he can solve this catastrophe. Snyder has demonstrated repeatedly that this was not an issue on his mind until professionals and the media brought it to national attention.
From the time Snyder entered office in 2011, he has continually demonstrated that his administration’s number-one priority would be to save the state money, apparently even at the cost of lives. Upon taking office, Snyder signed the most expansive emergency manager program in the nation. Before the new law, Michigan’s emergency manager program functioned like most other states’ in that it allowed state governments to appoint representatives to oversee municipal finances for cases in which they became insolvent. But soon after taking office, Snyder made Michigan the only state that allows the state government to appoint a single individual to take control over entire municipalities, requiring city councils and mayors to get approval from the governor’s appointees for all actions. These appointees could control everything in municipalities, from firefighter’s contracts to sewage maintenance. They serve solely at the pleasure of the governor, making them the optimal opportunity for Snyder to implement his cost-cutting agenda anywhere he saw fit, with no intervention from municipal governments.
The crisis in Flint is a direct result of the subversion of municipal democracy under this law. Elected representatives of the people of Flint might have had the forethought to realize that running a cheaper water source through lead pipes 19 times more corrosive than the previous source might not be the best for their constituency’s health. Flint’s elected representatives would have switched back to Detroit water when residents started complaining of foul-tasting water and rashes. They might have realized that charging people for water that is unsafe to drink, and then shutting off water when residents didn’t pay, might not make for the best governance, yet this is still somehow actually happening. 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.
That’s not to say no blame is to be shared with Flint’s government. Despite being powerless, Flint’s mayor and city council could have been far more vocal in bringing attention to the plight of Flint, and not could have not dismissed concerns over water quality. But while accountability in the Governor’s Mansion has yet to come, Flint’s government rejected its Incumbent Mayor Dayne Walling in favor of current Mayor Karen Weaver last November. However, despite being under financial emergency for more than four years, the apparent cost-saving emergency management system still has not restored democracy to Flint. Flint’s newly elected mayor still lacks her full authority, because the city has still been controlled by a Receivership Transition Advisory Board, a board made up of unelected state and local officials designed to transition the city back to self-governance, since last April.
That leaves only one elected official to be held accountable for the actions that have plagued Flint: Snyder. If a local mayor or council member took actions that led to the poisoning of his or her constituents, they would at the very least be denied another term. The only option Michigan residents have to hold Snyder properly accountable, since he is serving his second of two terms, is to recall him from office. Michigan law allows a governor to be recalled provided a petition signed by 25 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election to put the issue on the ballot.
There is just one problem: The bipartisan Board of Canvassers, the board appointed by the governor to supervise elections, has rejected multiple petitions from Detroit pastor Angelo Scott Brown on grounds from purely technical to that the actions Snyder has been accused of happened in his first term, and therefore he cannot be held responsible for them in his second. We find such logic outrageous and unbecoming of a democratic society. There shouldn’t be a statute of limitations on an elected official’s exploitation of a vulnerable population for political gain. We call on the Board of Canvassers to accept one of the many currently pending petitions to right this wrong.
From the time Snyder entered office, he has demonstrated a lack of regard for the democratic process and has left Flint powerless. Now, Michiganders must be allowed to use their vote to give the people of Flint justice for the life-changing choice they never got to make.