Howes: MI ‘comeback’ endangered by Flint, DPS crises

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The price of incompetence can be high.

Even as President Barack Obama came to town this week to tout the auto revival and its upside push to Detroit’s revitalization, the two biggest crises of Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure threaten to reshape the “new Detroit” inside the Michigan “comeback state” narrative.

That’s a stark reversal from the glow of Detroit’s successful emergence from Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the crafting of a “grand bargain” to bolster city pensions and rescue the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the billions in downtown development, the positive economic momentum.

The governor has only himself and his tone-deaf team to blame.

Not the elected leaders of Flint, whose 7-1 vote to join the Karegnondi Water Authority did not include the decision to pump lead-laced water from the fetid Flint River after the city ended its association with Detroit’s water department. Not the teachers of Detroit Public Schools, whose wildcat strikes masquerading as sickouts serve to highlight deplorable conditions inside the schools that have been insufficiently addressed for way too long.

The inconvenient truth: the emergency managers in both cases work for the governor who appointed them. They’re empowered to override, or endorse, the will of elected leaders. That means the chains of accountability here are connected directly to the governor’s office.

Judging by Tuesday’s State-of-the-State address, Snyder and his team appear to understand this, to grasp the need for contrition, transparency and action. But it’s not clear they fully understand how difficult it will be to rebuild credibility and revive forward momentum in a media hothouse fueled by social media and stereotypes of Republicans mistreating minority children.

The twin crises, featured on page 1 of Thursday’s New York Times, conjure the old line from former Secretary of State Colin Powell to President George W. Bush on Iraq: you break it, you own it. And, it could be added, the local, regional and national media will be there to tell the story.

Michigan’s Flint water crisis topped the editorial page in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. It claimed segments in Fox News’ “The Kelly File” and the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. It’s reliable copy for MSNBC, and is likely to remain so as narratives unwind of Republican mismanagement in Michigan’s two largest majority-minority cities.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat, is calling for hearings before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. She and others, chiefly Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, want to know what Snyder knew, when he knew it and why he didn’t do things differently. Not much “comeback” in a visual of Michigan’s governor parrying testy questions on poisoned water from members of Congress.

It doesn’t matter that Democrats controlled Flint and Detroit schools, like, forever. It doesn’t matter that Hillary Clinton or the Democratic National Committee or organized labor or whoever with a smartphone are seizing the opportunity to lambaste a Republican governor briefly touted as presidential-ticket material.

What matters is who’s in charge now. And the fact that a controversial law designed to help cities and school systems save themselves from themselves — a law that helped Detroit negotiate in record time the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history — is proving more fallible than its backers contemplated because of the people chosen to do the work.

Boiled to its essence, the Flint fiasco is two emergency managers in two cities who worked for the same guy. Couldn’t the three of them, with an assist from the state treasurer, have crafted an extension to their agreement enabling Flint to stay connected to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department until Flint could connect to the new system?

Detroit would have maintained precious revenue. Flint would have retained a dependable source of water. And customers of the Flint system would be spared the anxiety associated with foul-smelling water, elevated lead levels in the blood of some children and the wallop to property values, economic development efforts and civic pride.

Snyder’s vow to “fix it” in Flint will be tested over the coming months, as details continue to emerge of bureaucratic incompetence in the state Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Their biggest deficiency so far: an inability to exercise common sense and tell the truth.

A workout for Detroit’s schools is more fraught because of intertwined academic, financial and political challenges. If Snyder cannot persuade Republican leadership in the Legislature to back his recapitalization and reorganization plan for DPS, and do it soon, the risk will grow of a default that tips the system into Chapter 9.

A critical lesson of the Detroit bankruptcy is being forgotten when it comes to Flint water and DPS: paying fewer taxpayer dollars now to avoid much larger liabilities later can be a wise, responsible use of public money — unless the people in charge prove too thick, too blind or too insensitive to see it.

Either way, today’s decision-makers own the problem, and nothing can change that.

(313) 222-2106

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.