LANSING, Mich. — Michigan’s emergency manager system, which has touched everything from the once-bankrupt city of Detroit to smaller municipalities and school districts, failed Flint — a unique admission Gov. Rick Snyder made under intense questioning by Congress.
Yet, the breakdown that caused lead from old pipes to contaminate the city’s drinking water — Snyder said Thursday he wished his appointed emergency managers had “asked more questions” — seems unlikely to make the state rethink its 2012 law, which empowers intervention in deficit-ridden communities by usurping control from locally elected officials.
Republican lawmakers, who control the Legislature and enacted the measure less than two months after voters repealed an older version, still support it, and the GOP governor was careful to limit his admission of failures to “this particular case with respect to the water issue.” Democrats opposed to the law say it is at the root of much of the Flint disaster: Snyder appointed four different people to run the city during its 3½ years of state control, and all were there either during deliberations over changing water sources in a bid to contain residents’ high bills or once the problems arose after the 2014 switch.
A spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter said mistakes were made in Flint “at every level of government,” but that emergency managers are needed. No Michigan city has one for the first time in 15 years, Gideon D’Assandro said, because they “got in, fixed the problems … and got out.” And Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, said Meekhof is “open to discussing how to improve the tools to help communities, but to just repeal the law would be irresponsible.”
Even before the Flint fiasco, the emergency manager law had been criticized largely as an undemocratic measure that disproportionately affects majority-black areas. A labor union spent more than $1.8 million on a successful referendum to repeal the 2011 law that let managers unilaterally change labor contracts. The current law, which still affords emergency managers significant power, gives local government other options.
The law’s biggest success story is Detroit, where an emergency manager filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and the city emerged on firmer footing in 2014. The city’s school district, however, has been under state management for seven years dating to Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s time in office, and Snyder is lobbying the Legislature for $770 million over a decade to pay down debt and launch a new district with improved academic performance.
Asked in January if the problems in Flint and with Detroit schools made him reconsider the law, Snyder said it has “done many good things in our state in many places.” He said no cities have an emergency manager because the law makes it easier to quickly fix finances without constant oversight.
Of the three school districts overseen by a state manager, he said, Detroit is “the one case where … the emergency law has not worked (as) effectively as I would like to see it.”
Two days before Snyder’s Thursday testimony in Washington, Darnell Earley told the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the primary blame for the crisis lies with state and federal water regulators, saying “but for these failures, we would not be here today.” He was the city’s emergency manager at the time its water source was switched to the Flint River.
The failure to deploy anti-corrosion controls after the switch is considered a catastrophic mistake that enabled lead to leach from aging pipes and reach some homes; the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged misreading federal regulations and wrongly instructing the city not to apply corrosion controls.
The House committee’s Democratic staffers recently interviewed Gerald Ambrose, Flint’s final emergency manager before the city began regaining local control nearly a year ago. He once characterized an attempt by a powerless city council to reconnect to Detroit’s water system as “incomprehensible,” saying water customers could not afford it.
Staffers also plan to talk to former manager Ed Kurtz, who, along with the city council, ex-Mayor Dayne Walling and the Snyder administration, approved a move to a new regional pipeline in 2013. Kurtz signed off on using the Flint River as a temporary source.
U.S. Reps. Gerry Connolly from Virginia and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey were among a number of Democrats to sound off on Snyder, with Connolly telling him the emergency manager system is “a failure of a philosophy of governance you advocated” and that “at some point, the buck stops at your office governor.”
On Friday, Snyder told reporters in Flint that he is open to considering revisions but no changes are planned to the law, which he said “generally” has worked.