Newly-elected Flint Mayor Karen Weaver talks about the city's water crisis and how it brought residents together. Max Ortiz
Karen Weaver, the newly elected mayor of Flint, speaks with pride and confidence about the city that raised her, giving the impression her job is going to be easy. She beams as she talks about her heritage: how her mother, Marion Coates Williams, was the first African-American teacher in Flint; her father, the late T. Wendell Williams, the first black elected to the Flint Board of Education.
But Weaver, 56, a licensed clinical psychologist who was sworn in Monday as Flint’s first female mayor, knows she is in an uphill battle leading a city that is still struggling to recover from a major public health crisis of lead contamination in its water. The crisis became more pronounced when the city tapped into the Flint River, a former dumping ground for all sorts of garbage, including car parts, etc., for its water supply.
Weaver said that for the past 18 months residents’ complaints about the water fell on deaf ears in state and local government until several researchers, including an independent research team from Virginia Tech, corroborated what residents had been saying all along: Flint water had lead poison.
In her first extensive sit-down interview since the election, Weaver, who defeated incumbent Dayne Walling, 55 percent to 43 percent, said that despite what she calls a “national public health disaster” in Flint, she hasn’t given up on the city.
“I see hope for Flint,” Weaver said. “The water issue cuts across race, gender and socioeconomic status because everybody needs water. That brought us together.”
Gov. Rick Snyder appointed a task force to review the actions that led to the Flint water debacle. But how does Flint pick up the pieces?
“We need some federal help. The state needs to take a bigger responsibility and look at the impact this has had on the city,” Weaver said. “This has been terrible. They had to turn off water in schools. The lead damage can cause cognitive damage (to humans) which is irreparable.”
Weaver said an estimated 30,000 of the city’s 102,000 residents in Flint were using and drinking contaminated water. That includes pregnant women, patients at hospitals, schoolchildren and seniors. The mayor had her own water tested and found it contained high levels of lead.
“People were complaining that their hair was falling out and that they were having skin rashes,” Weaver said. “A whole generation of under-6-year-olds have been affected by this,” Weaver said. “This is far reaching. The impact on these kids will be for life.”
Weaver said Flint should be declared a national emergency based on the inaction of state officials whose test results of the city’s water did not reveal the toxicity of the water.
“There was a cover-up. It was when the medical community spoke out that they paid attention,” Weaver said. “There’s been an issue of broken trust with city government. For a year and a half, the community was suspicious of the water.”
Weaver said that during the campaign, she found that at seven of the 10 doors she approached, the residents said water was their top issue.
“GM (General Motors) stopped using the water in Flint,” Weaver said. “I told voters that if the water was not good for GM parts why is it good for our body parts.
“Voters were not only concerned about the quality of the water but also the cost,” Weaver said. “The water rates were raised 35 percent, which was eight times more than the national average. It costs about $450 dollars to get water turned on when it was cut off.”
Top elected officials in Flint worry that some residents have moved out because of the water issues and others are contemplating similar actions.
“Some small businesses have left, people have left since the water crisis started,” Weaver admitted, noting that the city has reconnected to the Detroit water system.
Weaver said her mission now is to restore the public’s trust in city government despite the fact that Flint is under state receivership administered by a board appointed by the governor. The city came out of emergency management in April.
“I’ve committed to holding a monthly town hall meeting with residents,” Weaver said. “I also want to sit down with all the department heads because we’ve had some issues in Flint.”
Weaver said questions are being asked about a public safety mileage that voters approved in 2012. Then-Mayor Walling campaigned vigorously for a five-year 6-mills tax that was expected to raise about $5.3 million for police and fire in the first year alone. That millage increase cost the average Flint homeowner $79 a year.
“We did not hire additional police and fire after that millage. So where did the money go,” Weaver asked. “Public safety is a huge issue. To bring more people to the city of Flint, we’ve got to do something about crime.”
She said economic development and neighborhood growth will be priorities for her administration.
“I’ve been talking to the landlord association about houses that need to be torn down,” Weaver said. “But we’ve also got the Bishop International Airport, two major railways and some companies here. So we need to leverage our resources as a city.”
She noted that the Hurley Medical Center is the city’s largest employer with a staff of more than 2,500. The city also is home to the University of Michigan-Flint, Mott Community College and a Michigan State University extension campus.
Already some local leaders are eagerly looking to the leadership of the new mayor.
“She must galvanize outside assistance to address this enormous challenge. I support her commitment to seeking a federal disaster declaration,” said Woodrow Stanley, a former state representative from Flint.
Weaver has a clean-up job to do with the water crisis. She insists that though it is a gigantic task she will succeed.
“I would not have run if I did not think I would be successful.”
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.