Howes: Is accountability coming for Flint water crisis?

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

On the day President Barack Obama came to Flint and drank the water, the first shoe of legal accountability dropped in the long-running crisis of contaminated city water.

Mike Glasgow, indicted for tampering with lead-testing results, pleaded no contest to a charge of willful neglect of duty. The lesser one-year misdemeanor ensures the Flint utilities administrator will cooperate with continuing local, state and federal investigations into the water contamination crisis.

A coincidence it’s likely not. As much as the president expressed confidence the crisis could be turned into an “opportunity to rebuild Flint even better than before,” the reality is the quest for accountability is just beginning in the state’s worst public health crisis in decades.

It should be, and Glasgow’s plea probably is the first of more to come. Investigations by Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette and U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, an Obama appointee, could turn the oxymoron of government accountability upside down — depending on where their probes ultimately lead and whether the public follows.

Just ask Gov. Rick Snyder, whose executive staff and state departments of Environmental Quality and Community Health bear a large measure of responsibility for the mess. After months of apologies and tele-town halls, congressional testimony and task force reports, the governor accepted the president’s offer to address a crowd of 1,000, stepped to the podium and was greeted by a chorus of boos.

“I want to come here today to apologize,” Snyder said amid jeers, chants and more booing. “You didn’t create this problem. Government failed you,” a now-stock phrase of the governor’s. That prompted some in the audience to retort: “You failed us.”

Perfectly understandable sentiment, that, animating continuing calls for the governor to resign. More than two years after the city severed its 50-year ties with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and began to draw water from the river bisecting Flint, residents continue to use bottled water for their daily needs.

Publicity stunts don’t help much, especially for Snyder, who interrupted a 30-day regimen to drink Flint water with a weeklong swing to Europe. But Obama’s sips of Flint water Wednesday drew a standing ovation — and nods of appreciation from officials eager to reassure residents that filtered water now is safe to drink.

“We welcome the president drinking the water,” said Bill Nowling, a PR consultant to the governor’s office. “It’s the right message to send. The picture across America is President Obama drinking filtered water from Flint.”

They need the help. Residents are burdened with nagging public health concerns and sagging property values; caught between partisan bickering over help-Flint legislation in Lansing and Washington; criticized (unfairly) by cynics who equate a water crisis precipitated by inept bureaucrats in Lansing with decades of Democratic Party control in Flint.

“My job here today is not to sort through all of the ins and outs of how we got to where we are, but rather make sure that all of us are focused on what we have to do moving forward on behalf of the children,” Obama said. “That’s my priority. And that’s got to be all of our priorities. There are times for politics and there are times for turf battles. This is not one of those.”

No, but tomorrow is another day. Blame, scapegoating and partisan politicking turbocharged by Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law are permanent fixtures of the Flint water post-mortem. Arguably different are the legal push for accountability and whether it will target all three levels of government implicated in the mess, not just Flint and state officials.

Schuette and his chief investigator, former FBI Agent-in-Charge Andy Arena, have repeatedly emphasized that no one — including the governor and members of his executive staff — is excluded from their ongoing investigations. Less clear is where staff of the Environmental Protection Agency who knew of Flint’s troubles but worked to keep them hidden might fit into the accountability roll-up, if at all.

What’s most remarkable about the Schuette and McQuade investigations is that they are endeavoring to hold government accountable at all. Not for the kind of public corruption that Kwame Kilpatrick and his Krew elevated to high art, but for ineptitude and indifference that endangered a whole city and may have facilitated an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease blamed for sickening 90 people and killing 12.

Yes, the president came to Flint, drank the water and urged people to “Flush for Flint” — the kinds of things presidents do. But what matters to the city and its people is who will be held accountable and for what.

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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.