Hackel: Snyder needs to live Flint’s ‘nightmare’

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Macomb County’s top leader is urging Gov. Rick Snyder to be more hands on with Flint residents over the city’s water crisis, saying the governor needs to “live this nightmare.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel on Tuesday said his first move would be to set up shop with a Flint homeowner “making sure that they understood that we cared as much as they did.”

“This issue here, this has to be one of the biggest crisis I’ve heard about in my existence in public life,” said Hackel, a former county sheriff. “You need to make sure that people realize you want to live this nightmare.”

Hackel weighed in on Flint water alongside the region’s other top officials during the Detroit Economic Club’s annual “Big Four” luncheon at the North American International Auto Show.

The panel, also featuring Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, stressed the need for continued action to help Flint’s residents and children impacted by the troubled water system.

The leaders, who came together in advance of Snyder’s annual state address, also debated Detroit’s troubled school system, violent crime and infrastructure needs.

Flint’s lead-contaminated water system is tied to the city’s switch to Flint River water in April 2014, a decision made while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. State health officials confirmed elevated lead levels in the bloodstream of Flint children in October. The city then switched back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water system.

Snyder has faced critics ranging from celebrities to presidential hopefuls and state politicians over the disaster.

“The real issue is these children have been exposed to lead levels that are going to affect their learning abilities in ways we don’t know,” Duggan said, urging Snyder to make those long-term effects the focus.

Patterson, however, interjected a point of view that he says was reflective of “the other side,” pointing to a WJR-AM (760) interview in which political pundit Bill Ballenger downplayed the water concerns.

Ballenger, who lives in Flint part time, said in an interview with The Detroit News that he believes the concerns are “way overblown” and Democrats are trying to turn the situation into a “political football.”

“I’ve been drinking their water and bathing in it for years, including the last year and a half without a filter,” said Ballenger, adding he had a recent blood test that turned up no concerns over lead. “The idea that there’s a catastrophe in Flint and the state ought to fork over the extra $500 million found in the budget to solve the water crisis is one of the greatest absurdities of our time.”

The national attention, Ballenger contends, presents another blow for the city already struggling with violence and poverty.

“The thing that is really sad is that Flint, once again, is getting hammered as being victimized,” he said.

Meanwhile, the school system for the state’s largest city also served as a central theme of Tuesday’s talk.

Duggan noted the “level of frustration” over the challenges facing Detroit Public Schools and charters within the city, saying the current state of the education system in Detroit leaves the city unable to compete.

“If our young people aren’t prepared, it’s going to hurt us in the long run,” he said. “We need to start talking about benchmarking our kids’ education.”

The Duggan administration last week launched a citywide inspection of all Detroit Public Schools buildings in response to complaints from teachers over health and safety.

Duggan called for the inspections after touring a number of DPS schools with city officials in the wake of sickouts by teachers upset over conditions in some of the buildings and other issues.

The school district’s Emergency Manager Darnell Earley has said the school system will cooperate fully with the city and its inspectors.

Duggan and others have urged quick action to fix the district’s schools and the city’s education system as a whole.

Snyder has proposed a $715 million plan to create a new, debt-free Detroit school district and a commission to oversee the opening and closing of the city’s schools.

State lawmakers introduced legislation last week in an effort to restructure DPS.

Evans agreed that public education must be a top priority.

“We’ve got to up the ante on what we invest in it and how smart we invest in it,” he said. “We have to have a structure to make public education viable.”