Howes: Snyder revives Flint water blame game, wrongly

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

For a governor who’s repeatedly claimed responsibility for the Flint water debacle, Rick Snyder is sounding lately like he’s doing anything but.

He used the “Pancakes & Politics” breakfast at the Detroit Athletic Club this week to blame “career bureaucrats” for showing “an absolute lack of common sense” on the city’s switch to water from the Flint River, a move that released lead particles into the water supply.

He implied his staff misled him on reports of lead contamination advanced by Flint residents, ministers and other outside experts by “telling me there really isn’t a problem in Flint” and “that these outside experts aren’t correct.”

But there was a problem. The experts were correct, and the bulk of the responsibility for the screw-up belongs to state officials who worked for Snyder. They botched Flint’s transition to untreated, corrosive river water and so did the mid-level bureaucrats who misinterpreted federal guidelines.

Responsibility also belongs to staffers in the governor’s office who downplayed warnings about the water and failed to voice loudly their concerns to the governor. And to Snyder, whose biases for data and delegation and whose dearth of political instinct combined to badly misjudge the gravity of Flint’s predicament and its long-term implications.

Here’s the rub: a CEO can’t take serial responsibility for failures under his leadership — failures by staffers directly accountable to, and appointed by, the boss — while simultaneously throwing the same people under the proverbial bus. That’s butt-covering, not leadership.

Leaders don’t deflect accountability for their mistakes, even the mistakes of their people, onto subordinates. They take the beating (from directors or voters, plaintiffs lawyers or congressional committees, rival parties or the news media) and deal separately with internal incompetence, negligence or both.

“There’s a difference from saying somebody lied to you and somebody gave you misleading information,” Ari Adler, the governor’s communications director, said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s a change in tone or responsibility. He’s the only elected official who said he’s taking responsibility for what happened on his watch.”

Maybe so. But the governor’s readiness to remind anyone who’s listening just how badly served he may have been by his staff, his department directors and what he calls “dumb and dangerous” federal water rules also serves to highlight weaknesses in his own management acumen as Michigan’s chief executive.

Blame shifting does nothing to change the narrative assembled by congressional hearings, the final report from the Flint Water Advisory Task Force and more than 40,000 pages of documents and emails. Nor does it help the long-suffering people of Flint, whose burden of lead-tainted water is exacerbated by the spectacle of continual finger pointing.

To date, only one state official from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has been fired and two have resigned amid the scandal engulfing Snyder’s second term. The mess is hobbling his effectiveness and pretty much ensuring that the only things likely to get done (Flint, a Detroit schools rescue, the state budget) are what absolutely must be done.

That’s it? Three people? Even allowing for the glacial pace of civil service disciplinary reviews, and a restructuring of the governor’s at-will communications and executive staff, that’s fairly meager accountability for an epic failure of state government complicating Michigan’s “Comeback State” narrative.

If misleading, misinforming and stonewalling the boss is insufficient grounds for dismissal, what constitutes sufficient offense? Does the governor tolerate the kind of dissembling reminiscent of his remarks this week to the Pancakes & Politics crowd?

He shouldn’t. Snyder took office as the auto industry began what turned out to be a long-running rebound of record-setting North American profits and U.S. sales. He reformed business taxes, delivered balanced budgets on time, moved state government at a pace its veterans had seldom experienced and reaped the political benefits.

He anticipated a financial crisis in Detroit that materialized quicker than expected because the Bing administration’s ineffectiveness magnified the financial mismanagement of the earlier Kilpatrick years. The result: the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history engineered by a Washington bankruptcy lawyer-turned-emergency manager.

Kevyn Orr had a job to do, not a political constituency to manage, and he did it faster than experts predicted. Viewed through the prism of Flint, however, Orr’s stewardship as EM appears more high-water mark than bellwether for the controversial process designed to save cities and school systems from their bad ol’ habits.

What worked inside Detroit City Hall failed in Detroit Public Schools and in Flint, where a series of appointed EMs failed to make decisions, navigate local interests and work politics as effectively as Orr, now back at the Jones Day law firm in Washington.

In the real world, credit and blame generally are apportioned according to results. As much as Snyder deserves credit for exceeding expectations in the Detroit bankruptcy, critical to maintaining momentum for the city’s revitalization, he cannot deny the opposite in Flint.

He shouldn’t even bother. The damage is done, the results speak for themselves, the investigations are unspooling and the only option for Michigan’s CEO is to fix what’s broken and let history judge the rest. Because it will.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.