The "tough nerd" owns this calamity: Rick Snyder's anti-government, authoritarian ideology has been nothing but bad news for Flint

Flint's water crisis is a colossal, avoidable and entirely man-made public health disaster. Thanks, Gov. Snyder

Published February 13, 2016 4:59PM (EST)

Rick Snyder   (AP/Carlos Osorio)
Rick Snyder (AP/Carlos Osorio)

Seven Super Bowls ago, a political newcomer named Rick Snyder introduced himself to me and a few million other Michigan voters with a quirky, well-received ad, gently poking fun of himself as “one tough nerd.”  

Touting his credentials as a job-creating entrepreneur, the ad informed us that as a kid in Battle Creek, “Snyder started reading Fortune magazine… when he was 8.”

Snyder’s tastes didn’t change much during his passage to adulthood. “From the business world, a lot of us have built great experience sets,” the former president and chairman of Gateway Computer told the Daily Beast in July of 2010. “We talk about outcomes, deliverables, and transparency… We couldn’t stay in business if we didn’t show real outcomes.”

Selling himself as a pragmatic, data-driven guy (who rarely wore a necktie), Snyder won a plurality against a divided Republican field in an August 2010 GOP primary. He polled 36 percent of the vote, beating a trio of conservative officeholders – including the state attorney general, a member of Congress and a county sheriff.

Snyder has since won two general elections. As the world now knows, turning our state government over to a business executive who never held public office before hasn’t turned out so well. The “tough nerd” is the man who presided over a colossal, avoidable and entirely man-made public health disaster. For more than a year, more than 100,000 citizens of Flint have been exposed to a toxic water supply, laced with lead and other contaminants.

Eight thousand children under the age of 5 who live in the city are most at risk; even at low levels, exposure to lead can cause irreversible damage to their brains. That translates, over time, into reduced intellectual capacity and higher incidence of multiple problems: attention deficit disorder, hypertension, aggressive and impulsive behavior – eventually, according to some researchers, higher rates of violent crime.

Lead poisoning is no picnic for adults. The substance is a neurotoxin, linked to anemia, brain damage, kidney failure and reproductive disorders for both genders.

This scandal has bodies, too. There’s been a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease – including 10 deaths – in and around Flint since the city’s water troubles began, nearly two years ago. The syndrome can be transmitted through mist or vapor from a contaminated water supply. High-ranking state officials knew about the outbreak in March of 2015, but Snyder didn’t say anything publicly until January 2016. “We can’t conclude the increase is related to the water switch in Flint,” said a state health department spokesperson on Feb. 3, “nor can we rule out a possible association.”

Trust me: Nobody in Flint now trusts a word state officials have to say about water quality.

The calamity began in April 2014 when the distressed and disinvested city, once home to tens of thousands of middle-class auto jobs, began using the Flint River as temporary water source. It was an attempt to save money by moving away from water provided for many years by the city of Detroit to a new, less expensive regional system that wouldn’t be ready until 2016.

Using Flint River water in the interim was supposed to save the cash-strapped municipality about $5 million over two years. Now, with a plumbing infrastructure that has been rotted by corrosive water, and families who face decades of long-term health effects, taxpayers will be on the hook for billions. That includes you, dear reader, because federal dollars will inevitably be part of the fix.

Since you’ll be footing the bill, you’re entitled to know that there were multiple signs of serious problems with Flint’s water supply, starting soon after the water supply was switched.

Residents began complaining almost immediately about foul-smelling, brown water coming out of their taps, a burning smell in their bathrooms and rashes on their skin. In August and again in September 2014, after discovering high levels of E.coli and fecal bacteria in Flint River water, city officials warned residents to boil water before drinking it.

To get rid of the nasty bugs, Flint authorities added a healthy dose of chlorine to the water supply. This makes water highly corrosive, yet somehow nobody figured to include anti-corrosion agents to Flint’s H20 recipe, even though it’s a standard, inexpensive treatment for municipal water systems.

This led to a weirder, even scarier development: In October 2014, General Motors – which still has an engine plant in the city  – said that because Flint municipal water appeared to be corroding metal parts, the company would switch its water supply to Flint Township. (The township, unlike the city, still draws water from Lake Huron, via the city of Detroit.)

Read this and weep: A major company announces – in public – that city water is ruining the metal it uses to make car engines. And nobody in a position of authority says, “Hey, maybe people shouldn’t be drinking that swill?”

I’m a spin doctor, not a real doctor. But if I understand this right, the core public health issue in Flint isn’t that people were drinking corrosive water. It’s that corrosive water eroded the pipes in the city’s plumbing system. Some of those pipes and the joints connecting them contain lead. That’s how a potent neurotoxin got into the drinking supply, and into the bodies of a hundred thousand people.

Not until a full year after GM started getting its fresh water from a different source did Flint residents finally receive the same privilege. In between, city and state officials said again and again that Flint water was safe to drink. It took persistent pressure from residents, a leaked EPA memo, and independent studies by scientists from Virginia Tech and a doctor from Flint’s Hurley Hospital before harsh reality finally overcame happy rhetoric. In October of 2015, the city, the state and the Mott Foundation came up with $12 million to pay for a return to the Detroit water system.

But the lead that leached into Flint’s plumbing infrastructure hasn’t gone away now that there is cleaner water in the system. Lead levels are still too high to allow Flint residents to safely drink tap water. Which is why your Facebook page is filled with appeals to send bottled water to Michigan.

Flint residents are stuck with water that is undrinkable, homes that are unsellable (would you buy one?) and – it breaks my heart to write this – children who may be unable to fully recover from the harm grown-ups have done to their brains and bodies.

How’s that for a “deliverable,” governor?

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a failure of government. The solution to bad water from Flint has been to reconnect to good water from Detroit – which is also a government, and which despite its many problems, has delivered safe drinking water to its own residents and surrounding communities for decades.

This is a failure of a particular anti-government, authoritarian ideology, in which business elites take control of public institutions in order to dismantle as many of them as possible. The dual purpose is to spend less public money – thereby reducing the tax burden on high earners – and to redirect what spending is left into the hands of private entrepreneurs, who generally pay employees less and provide crappier service.

In 2013, Snyder’s administration laid off unionized public workers who served food in state prisons and replaced them with Aramark, a private contractor. Not long afterward, Aramark was caught serving food infested with maggots to state prison inmates. The company lost the contract, only to be replaced by a different private firm.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not a big fan of Rick Snyder. Other than his lack of neckties – and his willingness to buck GOP orthodoxy, embrace Obamacare and back Medicaid expansion – I’ve never found much to like about the guy. A few years back, I was hired to persuade others to dislike him, working as a media strategist for organizations that actively opposed the governor in court (the Sugar Law Center) and at the ballot box (the Michigan AFL-CIO).

But you don’t have to be a paid lefty flak to know that even after an appalling track record of bungling by his subordinates and others, the principal author of the tragedy in Flint is and always will be Rick Snyder. What you do have to know is that as this crisis unfolded, Flint was not a self-governing municipality. Instead, due to ongoing financial problems relating to a steadily declining tax base, the city has been run since 2011 by a series of “emergency managers,” who bypass the authority of the elected mayor and city council.

In Michigan, these all-powerful, unelected viceroys are selected by a board of state officials appointed by … Rick Snyder. They work under terms of a law pushed through the Legislature (twice) by … Rick Snyder. They report to the state treasurer, who is also appointed by … Rick Snyder.

Starting to see a pattern here?

The accountability equation is simple: If you declare a financial disaster zone, defenestrate local elected officials, and put your own guy in charge, then you own whatever happens next.

Michigan has 83 counties, more than 600 school districts, more than 250 cities and 1,240 townships. Rick Snyder is governor of all these places – but his handpicked panel has appointed supreme overseers in just 11 “financially distressed” cities and school districts. You’d think he would pay pretty close attention to what’s happening in those jurisdictions, if for no other reason than to protect his own reputation.

More than a dozen states have laws authorizing some form of state takeover of troubled local units of government, and Michigan had one on the books before Snyder became governor. But the tough nerd’s version is a lot tougher.

Dealing with our state Legislature in Lansing is not necessarily Snyder’s best subject. Both houses are controlled by comfortable GOP majorities, but the worthies who serve there –especially the pair who got thrown out in what may be the best sex scandal ever – tend more toward movement conservatism than Snyder’s businesslike version.

Given that he doesn’t always get his way, it’s instructive to see where Snyder spends his political capital, and what he chooses to do first. He rushed his higher-octane version of an emergency manager law through the Legislature in March 2011, less than 90 days after his inauguration. That’s warp speed for our state capital; by contrast it wasn’t until his second term that Snyder managed to maneuver passage of a thoroughly mediocre funding plan for much-needed road repairs.

How does an earnest, numbers-crunching governor wind up poisoning 8,000 small children? It starts when you make it harder for their parents to ever complain about anything. Snyder’s unelected “emergency managers” – EMs – have power not only over local finances, but also to write new ordinances and rip up old ones. EMs can hire and fire local officials, tear up labor contracts, sell off or privatize public assets – even actually dissolve a municipality if they so choose.

In a Michigan jurisdiction under control of an emergency manager, the actions of elected officials are entirely symbolic – and sometimes, even the symbols get taken away. In April 2011, Joseph Harris, the state-appointed EM of a western Michigan city called Benton Harbor, issued an edict that reads as if it was written by the military commander of an occupied territory.

Harris prohibited “all action by all city boards, commissions and authorities, except as authorized by the emergency manager." The elected City Council and other public bodies, Harris said, could only do three things during public meetings: Call to order, approve minutes and adjourn.

If elected officials can’t take action at public meetings, how is an inquiring citizen supposed to know who is making decisions that affect his or her life? A good question, with burning relevance in Michigan, since multiple investigations are underway to uncover what really happened in Flint.

The governor and his team have claimed that the Flint City Council – a body they carefully neutered – made the decision in 2013 to disconnect from Detroit’s safe water supply in favor of an untested one from the Flint River. As more than one alert journalist has pointed out, elected officials in Flint lacked the legal capacity to decide much of anything at the time, since the city was under the thumb of an emergency manager.

The toxic two-step was in fact executed first by then-state Treasurer Andrew Dillon, who signed off on the long-range plan to move to a regional water authority. (Dillon, a onetime Democrat named to his post by Snyder in 2011, was forced to resign when allegations of unsavory personal behavior surfaced during an unpleasant divorce. Nice pick, Rick!) The second move, to temporarily use the Flint River while waiting for the regional system to be ready, was authorized in June 2013 by Ed Schultz, who was emergency manager of Flint at the time. (Here’s the contract he signed for an engineering study to kick off the project.)

If you find it odd that unelected officials can make major policy decisions with little or no public review, you’re not alone. I agree, and so do a few million Michigan voters. In November 2012, with a healthy 53 percent majority, we passed a statewide referendum to repeal Snyder’s amped-up emergency manager law.

In response, Snyder moved again at warp speed. During a lame-duck session the very next month, the governor convinced his occasional friends in the Legislature to make a few modifications and pass pretty much the same law all over again. (This time with a small appropriation attached, which under a quirk in the Michigan constitution means the new version can never be subject to voter repeal.) Snyder was, in effect, overruling the will of the voters so he could keep his power to … disempower local elected officials and overrule the will of the voters.

There’s a brutal, Putinesque logic at work here: I’m in charge and the rules are what I say they are. Because I said so. Any questions?

To be fair, Snyder is no Putin; there’s no evidence he ever intentionally poisoned anybody. Before becoming a computer executive, Snyder spent a good chunk of his career at what was then Coopers & Lybrand, one of the world’s largest accounting firms. His emergency manager laws – both versions – are full of green eyeshade tests to determine if a local unit of government is really in distress: missed payrolls, bad bond ratings, late pension payments, and so on.  

Snyder wasn’t lying when he told us he was a nerd; I’m convinced he truly believes he’s on a mission to impose fiscal order on undisciplined, poorly run municipalities that have largely caused their own problems. Shoving elected officials to the side during the process is a feature, not a bug.

Though he would never say so out loud, I suspect the reason for Snyder’s urgency to put tough emergency manager laws on the books is that he buys into the right-wing trope that cities are cesspools of corruption. Especially heavily Democratic cities with large populations of non-white residents, which describes most of the places where emergency managers have been appointed.

In this worldview, cities are in trouble in no small part because union chiefs skim dues money to elect compliant politicians who then vote for unsustainable levels of public expenditure. Giving sweeping authority to an unelected technocrat – who will serve temporarily and never need a nickel in campaign contributions – is a perfect way to end the vicious cycle.

A nerd should know better, as this explanation of urban problems has only a glancing relationship to reality. Among other things, it conveniently ignores the impact of private sector disinvestment, white flight and decades of tax and revenue schemes tilted toward suburban and rural districts.

In any case, the idea is not original with Rick Snyder, nor did he invent the “we should run government more like a business” meme. After the debacle in Flint, one can only hope both paradigms are headed toward oblivion, along with the remnants of Snyder’s career. (As late as April 2015, his name was being floated – in the National Review, no less -- as a possible presidential contender.)

Articles that favorably assess a certain person’s presidential prospects typically don’t get placed without help from a certain person’s friends. Or employees. Or both. More than a few Snyder insiders – dreaming last spring about a shot at better jobs in a different ZIP code – are shopping this winter for criminal attorneys.

Because their boss didn’t manage an emergency in Flint. He created one – a dirty, expensive disaster that has put a large group of people at significant risk for decades to come. Years from now, the Flint water crisis will be the first line in Rick Snyder’s obituary. Deservedly so.

Roger Kerson lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a few miles from Rick Snyder’s residence on Main Street. He works as a media strategist for labor, environmental and nonprofit organizations.          

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