The Flint water crisis is creeping — slowly — toward some semblance of normalcy, but the recriminations and posturing aren’t.
Exhibits No. 1 and No. 2 come this week with yet another spat between Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette over the role of state public health officials in Flint and, second, experts debating whether Flint’s lead-tainted water “might” be blamed for rashes on residents.
Accountability is necessary, at every level, in this giant government fiasco. More criminal charges and more civil suits from the AG are dead certainties in this era of official incompetence and pitchfork justice — even if convictions and suitably large judgments are not.
Those are reckonings with the past. But this whole episode is creating future opportunity for a largely forgotten city hit with the twin whammies of complacency and competition. Four decades of both pushed Flint’s bellwether employer, General Motors Co., into retreat and bankruptcy, upending two generations of expectation, presumed stability and rising personal income.
Flint is not forgotten anymore. Not so long as Snyder is governor and he struggles to rescue his legacy there. Not so long as Democrats use it as a campaign issue. Not so long as government bureaucrats debate the results of water tests each month. Not so long as state officials and their allies in the business community launch one more program to juice investment there.
The city’s name is a synonym for bureaucratic failure and Republican mismanagement. Flint is an embarrassing reminder that the state surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water (and 95 percent of the nation’s supply) could not successfully deliver some of it untainted to a minority-majority city of just under 100,000 residents.
Now the highest levels of state government are engaged in the protracted problems weighing on Flint because their complicity in the mess means it’s the right thing to do. Local officials, led by Mayor Karen Weaver, are grappling with the real issues that affect residents because they have to.
Key players in the Michigan business community, backed partly by foundations, are moving to find ways to invest in the city and its businesses — altogether a cumulative round of sustained, public-private attention that otherwise would not have coalesced around a work-a-day city forged in the auto industry’s faded Golden Age.
Put another way: without the precipitating crisis, does anyone really think Lt. Gov. Brian Calley would be spending three days a week in Flint? That a coalition of foundations would commit $125 million to help the city and its residents through the transition to cleaner water? That business would be looking for ways to support a Flint comeback?
That Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would compete to issue the most withering denunciation of Snyder and Republican governance? That President Obama would come, drink the water and try, mostly unsuccessfully, to depoliticize the biggest gift Michigan Democrats have received since Jennifer Granholm bolted for California?
The past, what, 30 years say no. Not under Democrats and not under Republicans, despite the Snyder administration’s demonstrated record of using Chapter 9 bankruptcy to help Detroit chart a path to financial sustainability.
As difficult as the water crisis has been for Flint residents, city officials and the Snyder administration in Lansing, the episode is shining a metaphoric light on the city and creating opportunity. How can its cultural assets, human needs and public obligations be reinterpreted?
The concentrated attention is beginning to pay dividends. Near-term, the benefits can be seen in new water fixtures inside Flint schools; more school nurses to help monitor the health of the city’s school children; keen interest by business leaders in helping to rebuild downtown and stabilize its central business district.
The mayor, thrust into a national spotlight that took her to the White House and a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention, is sounding more positive notes and crediting the state’s efforts in Flint — an upbeat tone she was not taking a few months ago.
All good. But Flint’s predicament, however much it was precipitated by outsiders in Lansing and the Environmental Protection Agency, underscores a recurring truism among too many Michigan cities (and public school systems):
Change seldom comes until crisis makes it inevitable, until the glare of sustained publicity makes it too difficult for the ambivalent and the marginally invested to turn away and mutter, “Not our problem.”
Not true, as Flint has been demonstrating for the past two years.
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.