Flint’s Water AND Democracy Crisis


A growing number of residents are demanding not simply the resignation but the arrest of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder over the ongoing water contamination crisis.

Snyder declared a state of emergency last week for Flint — only, however, after learning of an investigation of lead contamination of the drinking water had begun by the federal government. Lead when ingested in water, paint and other sources is connected to permanent health problems including memory loss and developmental impairment.

Flint’s water problems began after Snyder’s appointed emergency manager switched Flint’s water source  to the polluted Flint River from Detroit’s water system to save cash.

University researchers say the city could have corrected the problem by better treating the water at a cost of as little as $100 a day.  This inaction could now cost as much as $1.5 billion to fix the city’s water infrastructure, according to Flint’s current Mayor.

Flint residents had complained about the quality of the water to the state for more than a year following the switch. Tests of water from individual homes revealed lead levels 7-28 times federal standards, which themselves are too high to begin with. Flint residents, a large percentage of whom are low income and African American, were ignored Governor Snyder’s chief of staff wrote an email to health officials admitting Flint residents were, “basically getting blown off by us.”

The decision to switch was made by an unelected emergency manager with ultimate power over the Mayor and City Council to run the city. The elected officials only had as much power as that emergency manager decides to give them. Their authority and pay is determined by the emergency manager. The mayor and City Council are, thus, employees of the appointed, unelected emergency manager.

These emergency managers can also sell off assets, break collective bargaining agreements, slash the healthcare benefits of retirees and overturn ordinances and create new ones.

“Emergency managers” appointed by Governors in response to financially distressed conditions in cities are becoming more common not just in Michigan but around the country. Of course, among the reasons for financially distressed conditions have been the unilateral power of corporations to pick up their plants and move wherever and whenever they want with no responsibility or accountability to the communities — a common occurrence throughout the former industrial Midwest. Another reason is due to state cuts in revenue sharing to cities and other municipalities imposed by states — as a means to save money and often, to cut state taxes, which disproportional benefit the wealthy, and corporations in that state. That has no doubt happened in Michigan. That has certainly happened in Ohio — as last year’s state budget attests with its 6.3% income tax cut and tax cuts for businesses.

So a crisis is created or at least exacerbated due to external conditions in a community. That crisis is then used to declare an emergency that demands drastic action, which entails appointed a person with the power to trump the authority of elected local officials. So much for democracy.

Flint’s crisis is certainly one of water. But it flows, if not gushes, into a crisis of democracy. The inability of Flint residents to elect their local leaders who have the authority to represent them and the power to protect their health and safety because of a state appointed, unelected “emergency manager” who is more concerned with saving money and selling public assets (i.e. privatization or corporatization) is a trend we must all become more aware of and be prepared to resist.


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