Howes: Is failure manufactured too often in Michigan?

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Judging by the parade of Michigan leaders hauled before congressional committees the past eight years or so, you’d think epic failure is manufactured only here.

Gov. Rick Snyder will join a long list of Detroit-based auto executives and a former president of the United Auto Workers who atoned for massive screw-ups of their own making when he testifies before the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee on the state’s complicity in the Flint Water Crisis.

However you regard these Capitol Hill inquisitions, the truth is they wouldn’t be necessary but for the spectacular incompetence recurring too regularly in Michigan’s public and private sectors. The Flint water debacle is just the latest example of that dispiriting trend.


A General Motors Co. CEO, Mary Barra, is twice called before Congress to answer for evidence that the automaker’s engineers conspired to cover up ignition-switch defects in some models no longer in production. More than 125 deaths have been tied to accidents involving the dodgy switches.

The CEOs of Detroit’s three automakers, flanked by then-UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, beg Congress for bailouts to avert collapse in late 2008. Within months, the new Obama administration forces GM and Chrysler Group LLC into bankruptcy as the price for bailouts totaling nearly $80 billion (much of which has been recovered).

The nation’s largest Chapter 11 case at the time, GM, is followed four years later by Detroit going Chapter 9 in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Congress and the White House avoid direct financial participation in the city’s subsequent restructuring, but the case underscores Detroit’s (and Michigan’s) claim to a dubious honor: the epicenter of dysfunction requiring massive outside intervention.

And people wonder why Michigan gets a bad rap, why Detroit’s evolving comeback is met with skepticism, why investors yawn at record profits from GM and Ford Motor Co.? Theirs is the triumph of experience over hope, a mostly dispassionate reading of recent history that sees here the need for a recurring cycle of crisis to produce change.

Comparisons can be fraught, of course. Less so is the fact that Michigan’s sitting governor is preparing to testify for what state departments and emergency managers answerable to him did not do, and, second, why the state failed to seek federal help in connection with the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.

Third, he’ll likely be asked to explain the inability of emergency managers in Flint and Detroit — appointed by the governor and managed by the state treasurer — to craft an interim water-supply agreement between Flint and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that would have maintained a 50-year service relationship until Flint could join the new Karegnondi Water Authority under construction.

Fourth, official e-mails depict a chronic lack of urgency inside the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. To date, the department director and his PR guy have resigned and a third official has been fired. That trail of accountability looks woefully short given the stakes, the hit to Flint’s image, and the human toll in the state’s second-largest minority-majority city.

Michigan’s relentlessly positive governor is presiding over a bureaucratic mess turned public-health disaster that delivered lead-tainted water to Flint homes and businesses. The state also appears, based on emails reviewed by The Detroit News, to have downplayed connections to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ blamed for sickening 87 people and killing nine.

There’s no way to spin that to a congressional committee, Democrats or Republicans. The more the Flint crisis evolves, the worse and more indefensible it looks — from the state officials who clearly preferred their rules and processes over Flint and its people, to employees of the Environmental Protection Agency who muzzled one of their own at the expense of the public.

The run-up to Michigan’s March 8 presidential primary and the accompanying national media coverage will exacerbate the situation. Not so much for the governor and his team, but for Flint businesses and property owners whose holdings will be devalued further by politicized rhetoric seeking tactical advantage.

Another political bash-fest, be it from the campaign trail or a congressional hearing room, might be gratifying to Flint and Snyder’s many critics. But it will do little to rectify the epic blunder in Flint that the state engineered and remains obligated to fix.

(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.