Shortly after the city of Flint’s switch to the use of Flint River water in April 2014, residents raised concerns about rashes and hair loss. In January 2015, protesters called for higher-quality water. By March 2015, even the city council voted 7–1 to end the use of Flint River water, but because of a Michigan law that stripped local leaders of their power, all of these factions were excluded from the decision-making process.
A month ago, Gov. Rick Snyder released e-mails from 2014 and 2015 related to the Flint water crisis. In many of these, members of Snyder’s administration dismiss and belittle the concerns of poisoned residents. Snyder’s former chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, accuses affected residents of turning the situation into a “political football” and calls groups asking for investigations “anti-everything.” Another Snyder staffer refers to “data” in quotes to undermine the credibility of information provided by a local physician indicating high levels of lead in Flint water.
In his State of the State address and recent interviews, Snyder has tried to deflect blame by pointing to the Flint City Council’s 2013 vote in favor of a new water system. Yet shortly after December 2012, the governor signed an emergency manager law that allows the state to intervene in financially struggling municipalities — an idea that Michigan voters rejected just months before. Under that law, the state’s treasury held the power to make the water switch. Indeed, Snyder’s hand-picked emergency manager called the council’s vote to end the use of Flint River water “incomprehensible” and chose to ignore it.
Snyder’s administration has created a system in which public leaders are neither responsive to nor reflective of their constituents, and this inevitably leads to outcomes that do not benefit the community. In this case, the result is a tragedy: A generation of children will never have the opportunity to reach their full potential as a result of lead poisoning.
One of the released e-mails, in which a staffer writes to Snyder about a Flint taxation debate, shows just how removed Michigan residents can be from the decisions that greatly impact their lives:
“Governor, as you know Flint would like to increase its city income tax from 1.0% to 1.5% … Farrington, Chair of House Taxation — said he would take up this bill over his dead body. Then he said he would take up if you asked directly. You are having lunch with him today — can you just mention the importance of getting this bill done before we adjourn.”
Flint, an urban center predominantly made up of residents of color, had its taxing power decided over lunch by the governor and Jeff Farrington, a representative from a suburban district that is 87-percent white and nearly an hour away. And this was business as usual.
Coming from Michigan’s middle-class suburbs, I know it can be easy to distance oneself from these political problems until something like the Flint crisis makes the news. In my small hometown, Wixom, and in the vast majority of Michigan cities and towns, there is no fear of political leaders taking away our way of life. But democracy is not an exclusive right of upper- and middle-class white suburban communities. And as Michiganders, we must realize that situations like Flint will happen again if we do nothing.
It matters who writes the rules, and empowering Flint residents could have shortened or prevented the crisis. Participatory rulemaking at the city level, for example, would have ensured residents had a say in their water regulations. Some form of participatory budgeting process would have allowed residents to make their own cost-saving tradeoffs. Our democracy only works if all the voices in our state have an opportunity to take part in writing the rules of governance. When we fail to create opportunities for inclusive decision-making — or even basic democratic access — there is little to protect our state’s most vulnerable residents from catastrophes like this one.