The Flint Water Crisis dramatically calls attention to the inherent dangers of Governor Rick Snyder’s emergency manager program. But, if you listen to Snyder, you might not realize that EMs even played a role in this crisis.

In his State of the State address Snyder only mentioned emergency managers once. He said: “This crisis began in the spring of 2013 when the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to buy water from the Karegnondi Water Authority (the KWA). Former Flint Mayor Walling supported the move and the Emergency Manager approved the plan.”

This statement could mislead you in two ways. First, among the facts re emergency management that he strategically omitted, Snyder failed to mention that, “After initially supporting the plan, the Flint City Council, reacting to public outrage over water quality, voted [in early 2015] to return to the Detroit system…. EM Jerry Ambrose, the fourth person to hold that job in Flint, overruled the vote of those elected officials, forcing residents to continue using river water.”

From Snyder’s statement, you might interpret the EM’s role throughout this crisis as mostly advisory. You would likely conclude that local officials (e.g., the mayor and city counsel) were just as much to blame as EM Darnell Earley, the one who approved the switch (who, by the way, is now the EM of Detroit Public Schools suing the teachers in order to break their strike).

But, from the record assembled by many journalists, like ACLU investigative reporter Kurt Guyette (quoted above), the picture looks quite different. We see that EM Ambrose prevented local, elected officials from executing the will of their constituency. This is not the act of an advisor. It’s the act of an authoritarian.

Furthermore, as Guyette has argued, Flint’s emergency managers compromised the Flint City Council and Flint Mayor’s ability to serve their constituency. Flint’s elected officials “were in essence working for the emergency manager, not the people who elected them. The EM decided how much pay the mayor and council members drew, and how much power they could wield.” Their vote in favor of the switch was more or less a formality since, “The [EM], under the sweeping powers granted under Public Act 436, had complete authority to make the switch regardless of what Flint’s elected officials wanted.”

Second, though the immediate crisis probably began when Snyder claims, his timeline limits our understanding of the problems in Flint to the relatively recent past. Likewise, from Snyder’s statements, the issues involved in the Flint Water Crisis appear highly specific and isolated, not systemic or structural. He is focused on solving the “lead problem” in Flint. For many of us, this is far too simple-minded. To us, the lead contamination is an especially painful and visible symptom of the many diseases raging through the body of America today — e.g., white supremacy, global capitalism, economic terrorism, etc. Though it now requires direct, immediate attention, we must address the structural and systemic problems that precipitated this crisis.

The anti-democratic history of Snyder’s emergency management policy helps us understand its catastrophic application in the case of Flint. In November 2012, Michigan voters rejected Michigan’s first emergency manager law, Public Act 4 of 2011, via referendum. Less than two months later Snyder signed Public Act 436 of 2012, which was mostly similar to PA 4, except it included an appropriation that made it immune to referendum. At the time Snyder hailed the replacement EM law, saying, “This legislation demonstrates that we clearly heard, recognized and respected the will of the voters… It builds in local control and options while also ensuring the tools to protect communities and school districts’ residents, students and taxpayers.”

As Snyder understands it, “the will of the voters,” as expressed in the referendum, demands laws immune to referendum, unlike the one they’d just rejected (via referendum). Clearly, the voters showed that they wanted less direct say in the laws that govern them. In Snyder’s mind, there’s no question that the voters desire emergency management, since they cannot possibly be trusted to elect competent representatives. The people need a strong man, a patriarch, to “manage” them, tempering their desires for basic resources like fresh water with more serious concerns like balancing the budget. We are too weak and meek to make the hard choice of austerity, so we desire someone to impose it upon us. In these troubled times, democracy must be suspended.

Only such absurd, fascistic philosophy, blatantly disrespectful to our basic desire for autonomy, could possibly explain the decision to impose emergency management and austerity in spite of the voters’ rejection of it.

One safety of municipal democracy lies in the fact that elected representatives live in the communities they serve. They often directly experience the problems that they seek to solve — e.g., when they turn on the tap, they see brown water running, and they know something’s wrong. These elected representatives are interpersonally tied to their constituency. On the other hand, emergency managers have none of these characteristics, and so, much like police officers employed outside their home communities, the EMs don’t have any direct, personal stake in the well-being of the communities that they serve.

After the switch from Huron Lake water to Flint River water, the citizens of Flint knew immediately that something was wrong: the water didn’t look right (it had a brown tinge), it didn’t smell right (kind of like rotten eggs) and it didn’t taste right (metallic). But such plebian methods of detecting problems, like using the cognitive faculties of sight, smell, and taste, are, by our government’s standards, unreliable and cannot constitute true knowledge. (Though brown water isn’t necessarily toxic, it’s a pretty good indicator of the need for further research; what’s more, it wouldn’t be tolerated in affluent white communities.) Thus, in turn, their voices were ignored and their collective will suppressed.

People calling for Snyder’s arrest and/or resignation specifically because of Flint’s lead contamination should prepare for the criminal investigations not to return a smoking gun. The state bureaucracy will likely filter out any responsibility before it reaches the governor’s office, and then the people will not have their justice. Instead we should recall Snyder because he has impeded democracy and threatens to continue through his policy of emergency management.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu. 

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