Fixing both Flint and its water pipes

The water-pollution tragedy in Flint deserves quick solutions but the city’s citizens, led by a new mayor, are also rightly looking at rebuilding the trust necessary to improve democratic governance.

AP Photo
Flint, Mich. Mayor Karen Weaver speaks at a news conference during the US Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington Jan. 20.

When a water crisis hit the Michigan city of Flint in 2014, residents at first sought to blame those in government. Who allowed toxic lead to flow out of city faucets? By 2016, the finger-pointing at the bureaucratic bungling over a new water supply had become an issue in the presidential campaign. Lawsuits were filed. Many heads rolled, from local government to the federal level. Some officials, especially Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, still remain answerable – for both the cause and a solution.

Fixes are steadily being put in place to ensure clean water in Flint. But the city has also begun to tackle a deeper issue: How to restore trust between its 95,000 residents and their elected leaders.

For all the bad decisions made about water in Flint, democracy itself failed. In 2002, local governance in the city had become so broken that the state imposed emergency management. This awkward arrangement tested the norms of civic accountability. Lines of responsibility broke down. At one point in 2013, it was unclear who should make decisions about a new water source – the city council or the state-appointed manager.

Flint voters are now starting to turn their accusing fingers at themselves. A community struggling with a host of problems is seeking to renew the bonds of citizenship necessary to elect responsible leaders.

One official trying to heal Flint’s civic disunity is a new mayor, Karen Weaver. Elected last fall, she says the underlying issue in the water woes is that “trust has been broken and damaged.” To restore trust within the community, Mayor Weaver has appointed a task force made up of a retired brigadier general and other advisers. And since January, she has held a series of “town hall” meetings.

At a public gathering last week, Ms. Weaver used a biblical analogy to describe her hope for the city this way: “With the faith of a mustard seed saying to this mountain – and the water crisis is our mountain – ‘get up and get out of our way’.”

“We will rise up and we will fly again. Nothing will get in our way,” she added.

Because of the crisis, Flint has become a testing ground for all Americans on ways to fix the so-called “trust deficit” in government. In the United States, that deficit has widened over the past half century. It is reflected in the latest polls that show a large majority of Americans believe Congress to be “out of touch” and corrupt. Americans even doubt themselves. Public confidence that the people as a whole can make good judgments on issues has dropped from 83 percent in 1974 to 57 percent last year, according to Gallup polls.

Despite this trend, what is easily forgotten is that the “trust deficit” runs both ways. Voters are ultimately responsible for those they elect. Big money and special interests do not stand a chance if voters use their power at the ballot box, demand better candidates, and get involved in politics and government bodies.

This truth is reflected in the fact that public trust in local government remains far higher – at about 72 percent – than in state or federal government. Citizens can more easily make a difference in local races. Cities and towns have a tighter web of neighborly ties than a state or an entire country. Preserving the close bonds of a local community usually remain as important as fixing its problems.

What can reverse the “trust deficit”? A 2013 survey by the University of Michigan gives a hint. Instead of assuming government must earn the trust of citizens, the pollsters asked local leaders in Michigan how much they trust their citizens. Here is what they found:

When citizens are mostly interested in just complaining, only 39 percent of local leaders express trust in their citizens. When citizens are seen as engaged in government only for themselves, the trust drops to 11 percent. But when citizens are interested in finding solutions or are seen as engaged for the benefit of the community overall, more than 70 percent of local leaders say they trust their citizens. And these figures hold true for big cities and small towns.

The conclusion from the survey: “... local leaders are looking for their citizens to live up to the democratic ideals of responsible citizenship in terms of engaging for the greater good, working toward positive outcomes, and being well-informed in order to help produce those positive outcomes.”

Or as John Kennedy said at his 1961 Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

The trust deficit, in other words, melts away when individual citizens are involved in government with constructive discourse and for the greater good. Roads are fixed, schools improve – and water runs clean.

As Flint tries to restore its qualities of citizenship, the rest of the US should cheer it on. Americans can learn again what it takes to make a community whole after a tragedy – whether it is in fixing a basic utility like water or in nurturing the bonds of democratic governance.

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