Gov. Rick Snyder says he is “kicking myself everyday” over his administration’s failure to “connect the dots” in the Flint Water Crisis.
Who wouldn’t, given the disaster it has become — open-ended public health concerns, expensive infrastructure repairs, myriad investigations, a racially charged political free-for-all and layers of bureaucratic failure that are likely to define his legacy as governor?
The more important question is why Snyder and his team failed to connect the dots. That’s especially salient because key people close to the governor traded warnings about drawing water from the Flint River a full year before he says he was notified of lead leaching into the city’s water supply.
The more administration emails depict ranking Snyder staffers discussing Flint’s noxious water, traces of lead in it and the possible connection to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, the more the contention that The Boss was the last one to know strains credulity.
If false, the mendacity would speak for itself and would vindicate critics calling for Snyder’s resignation. If true, what does that say about a management culture shaped by the CEO-turned-governor? His yen for “relentless positive action” tends to downplay issues that don’t comport with his agenda. His style, say people who’ve worked closely with him, inclines toward decentralizing authority and empowering department heads to make decisions and execute them.
Wielding central executive power in the mold of, say, John Engler is not the Snyder way. He doesn’t do it often inside his own administration; doesn’t invest his top aides with the power of his proxy, as Flint-related emails by former Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore imply; and doesn’t aggressively leverage the muscle of his office in the halls of the Legislature (see the fights with the Republican majority over roads and a rescue package for Detroit Public Schools).
The results can sometimes be badly flawed, witness the bungling of the Flint Water Crisis and its possible connection to the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Administration documents repeatedly show insiders talking past one another, failing to connect related issues, spurning help from outside experts and stiff-arming federal officials whose assessments of the situation turned out to be far more right than wrong.
None of this happened in a vacuum. The Oct. 14, 2014, email exchange between the governor’s chief legal counsel, Mike Gadola, and his deputy, Valerie Brader, second-guessing Flint drawing water from its own river occurred roughly three weeks before Election Day. The governor was seeking a second term in a campaign that proved to be far tougher than it arguably should have been.
Three days later, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes confirmed Detroit’s Chapter 9 restructuring plan, capping the largest municipal bankruptcy case in American history. It did so in record time and with near-unanimity of the city’s creditors, including its unions, pensioners and two pension funds.
The case appeared poised to achieve the unachievable: to get Detroit through a contentious bankruptcy in less than 16 months without selling major assets and without major confrontations with labor or residents. Combined with the hype of “Comeback Michigan,” the accomplishment also fueled a yearning for something bigger in Snyder.
People close to the governor — including his new chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, and the head of his Mission Flint Team, Rich Baird — began pushing the notion he should explore a run for the Republican presidential nomination. Ranking Michigan Republicans almost uniformly dismissed the prospect as laughable in what became a densely populated field now culled of all but one governor.
Under the guise of telling the Michigan story, Snyder visited GOP heavyweight Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas, made appearances on both coasts and planned to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, until a torn Achilles ended his peripatetic schedule. Can you say “distraction”?
“The close election was a symbol of the same problem,” says a close associate of the governor. “He was looking ahead far too early in his political career. He started looking beyond Michigan.”
Context and the administration’s internal culture matter here, just as much as the local, emergency manager-led decision in Flint to draw water from the Flint River until the city could join the new Karegnondi Water Authority. Enough people in the Snyder administration with enough access to the right information could have shared it earlier with the governor than he says they did.
The evidence, incomplete as it is, suggests they didn’t. Emails released by the administration don’t detail conversations in meetings, or sidebar chats with the governor, or any other means of communication. Instead they suggest a bias for autonomy over accountability that is not likely to survive the Flint water fiasco — because it shouldn’t.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.