Beyond criminal charges, Flint wants to know someone cares

The first criminal charges to come out of Flint's water crisis show the state is taking important steps, experts say. But residents still wonder if the state is listening. 

Paul Sancya/AP Photo/File
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette speaks at the Detroit Police Officers Association in Detroit on Sept. 10, 2014. Mr. Schuette announced criminal charges on April 20 against two state regulators and a Flint employee, alleging wrongdoing related to the city’s lead-tainted water crisis, according to government officials familiar with the investigation.

If the headlines are anything to go by, government response to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., is well under way.

On Wednesday, state Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges against two state and one city official in the crisis, vowing that “there will be more to come.” 

A month earlier, an independent panel appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder called the tragedy – which potentially exposed 100,000 residents to dangerous levels of lead – "environmental injustice" and recommended ways to address it. The governor last week also unveiled a plan that would make Michigan’s lead testing laws the toughest in the nation, and pledged to drink Flint water for the next month in a show of solidarity.

But to Desiree Duell, a Flint resident and community activist, the moves have the scent of “half-hearted gestures with a lot of PR.”

Drinking Flint water for 30 days? "That’s kind of insulting," she says. "That’s the least part of what’s happening here. I have to bathe in it, I have to brush my teeth in it.”

Her mileposts for progress are a lot more basic: Water she can drink and money to fix her city's problems. “They make it seem like things are getting better. But they are not.”  

The discrepancy speaks to the ongoing disconnect between government officials and people on the ground. The crisis was born of a shocking unwillingness to listen to the people of Flint, who complained of the water for 18 months before anything was done. Today, the residents still say they are not being listened to.

To be sure, state and local leaders are taking positive steps to both address immediate concerns and prevent a similar disaster from happening again. But the water crisis was a symptom of something much bigger – a willingness to allow a downtrodden city with little clout of any kind to essentially be forgotten. The city needs attention beyond newly-coated pipes and a few criminal trials. It needs health care, it needs infrastructure. 

But perhaps most of all, it needs the sense that those in the state capitol beyond will care enough to value their voice long after the last lawsuit is settled.  

“I would say we’re moving in the right direction probably more slowly than people would like,” says Eric Scorsone, an expert in city and state government finance issues at Michigan State University who has closely followed the events in Flint. “Everybody wants to solve the problem, but they’re not taking time to listen to residents.”

“I think there has to be a lot more – I say this cautiously – proactive outreach to the Flint community and Flint leadership, to bring them on as true partners to the state,” adds Chris Kolb, a member of the Flint water advisory task force and president of the Michigan Environmental Council, a nonprofit coalition of environmental and public health groups. “All sides want to do that, but it takes work.”

The message matters

The crisis in Flint began in April 2014, when, in an effort to cut costs, city officials under the watch of a state-appointed emergency manager decided to start using water from the Flint River. Right away, residents began complaining about the water’s taste and smell. They reported rashes, falling hair, and other symptoms. 

But it wasn’t until a year and a half later – after Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards found dangerously high levels of lead in Flint’s water – that the government started to act. In its report, the Flint task force called the crisis “a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.”

Snyder’s approval ratings have plummeted since the crisis. 

“People are not trusting the current governor,” says Matthew Grossman, director of MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. “You can see more public relations moves and legal moves to address the problem. But the underlying problems are still there.”

One crucial piece of the puzzle is communication and outreach, says Mr. Kolb at the Michigan Environmental Council. Flint residents, he says, “get mixed signals from the government.” 

For instance, the state Senate in mid-January approved $28 million in supplementary dollars for Flint. But in March, Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter, citing the need to be fiscally responsible and consider resources for Flint as part of the overall state budget, said that no more supplementals will be going toward the crisis until the new budget in October. 

Such messages, even when reasonable, can dishearten Flint residents, who continue to be billed for water they can’t use, Kolb says.

Officials, he says, need to be “sensitive to how the Flint community is hearing what they’re saying. It’s something that I think we haven’t done, as a state, a good enough job at all levels – the outreach that needs to be done in Flint.”

Positive steps

Still, Kolb and others say that some efforts since January indicate that leaders at both the state and local level are working toward systemic change. He notes that of the task force’s 44 recommendations, 25 are being acted upon.

A bipartisan effort in the Legislature has also led to the introduction of a 10-bill package geared toward enhancing accountability and transparency at the state level – including the amendment of Michigan’s blanket exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that applies to the governor’s office. Much of the investigating by reporters and researchers that uncovered the Flint crisis came through the use of FOIA. 

“I think there’s a real feeling [among state officials] of, ‘We have to make our decisions aboveboard, we need to be proactive, we need to be on top of things,’ ” says Jane Briggs-Bunting, president of the nonprofit Michigan Coalition for Open Government. “The legislation has to get passed, but we’re hopeful.”

“Even the PR stunts are in some ways efforts to address the problem,” adds Mr. Grossman at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. “There’s not a political reason anymore to sweep stuff under the rug.”

For those on the ground, however, the view is different.

“There’s this illusion that there’s been a lot of aid given to Flint. And that is not true,” says Duell.

Changing that perception is going to take a lot of work, says Professor Scorsone at MSU.

“The people of Flint are not going to trust any level of government at this time,” he says. 

“We’ve done some short-term things, that’s all fine and good,” he continues. “But from a policy standpoint we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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