Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has received national attention surrounding his involvement in the Flint water crisis — and some members of the University community are among those contributing to that attention, calling for more transparency in his response and advocating for his resignation.
On Dec. 14, Snyder declared a state of emergency in the city, multiple months after initial reports of lead in Flint’s water began to emerge following a 2014 switch from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River. The state didn’t switch to the city’s water supply from the Flint River back to Detroit’s supply until October, despite a series of reports from residents and outside sources citing health concerns from it. The governor’s office has maintained Snyder was unaware of the issues with the water until October, and in December accepted the resignation of the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, as well as the resignation of the department’s public information officer.
Along with the resignations and state of emergency, Snyder has also released all e-mails relating to Flint — 274 pages in total — detailing the internal decisions made within the governor’s office. The release of the letters, which are protected from being released involuntarily under the Freedom of Information Act, came amid significant public pressure. Earlier this year, the governor also requested 195 million in state funds as part of his fiscal year 2017 budget recommendation for relief efforts in the city.
LSA junior Joshua Strup, president of the Michigan Political Union, said he thought open discussion was important, but added that Snyder should focus more of his attention on the problem at hand rather than focusing on public outreach and his reputation.
On Feb. 3, the Political Union hosted a campus debate on whether the governor should be recalled over the crisis.
“By Snyder testifying and focusing on where they went wrong, he is avoiding how to actually solve Flint and is prolonging the problem," Strup said.
Many groups have focused their advocacy around the crisis in calling for Snyder to talk more openly and take questions about what happened in Flint. One such group is the National Lawyers Guild, which has an active chapter at the University’s Law School.
The chapter was active in a recent protest of Snyder on campus, initially set up in response to a scheduled event featuring the governor discussing Detroit’s bankruptcy. Though Snyder cancelled his appearance a few days before the event, the protest went on.
NLG members said prior to the cancellation, they were told they would be restricted from asking Snyder questions about Flint at the event, which they cited as a cause for concern.
Abbye Klamann, Law School student and member of NLG, said she considered the stipulations an infringement on First Amendment rights, and emphasized the need for transparency.
“We didn’t think it was appropriate for Snyder to come to campus to hide from what was happening,” Klamann said. “We also thought that the Law School was trying to restrict our First Amendment rights because Snyder can’t use this to hide from what happened in Flint.”
Strup echoed Klamann’s sentiments, saying halting conversation wouldn’t move the issue forward.
"I think any restrictions the law school and Snyder place on students isn't going to help solve any of these issues,” Strup said. “There needs to be an open discussion (on campus).”
Business prof. David Mayer, an expert on management in organizations, said the crisis and resulting outcry could make it difficult for the governor to do his job if he doesn’t rebuild public support.
“It’s hard for governments to make good decisions and be effective without some level of public support,” Mayer said. “The issue in Flint is going to make it very difficult for the government to have the legitimacy that it needs to make positive changes.”
Citing Snyder’s recent inclusion of funds for Flint in his state budget recommendation, Mayer said those monies, along with increased conversation about government transparency, are steps in the right direction.
“I do think he is saying the right things about how to create a different type of culture and talking about ways to have more people speak up and have that voice be heard,” Mayer said. “I think some of that rhetoric is good. But will Michigan citizens have faith in the government; I think that’s a real challenge.”
At the basis of all this — all the questions that have been raised about Flint on campus and beyond, all the advocacy — should be the citizens of Flint, Klamann said. She said Snyder can’t and shouldn’t shy away from the concerns raised in recent months, and noted that many groups involved in advocacy like hers are also working to support residents of the city.
“In this issue, we think the Flint voices are what matter most,” Klamann said.