$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

Flint residents welcome Snyder charges in water scandal, but await a verdict

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — Timothy Abdul-Matin didn't feel immediate joy when he learned that former Gov. Rick Snyder was expected to be charged criminally for the Flint water crisis.

Snyder, a Republican former two-term governor, is expected to be arraigned Thursday on two counts of willful neglect of duty related to the Flint crisis over lead-contaminated drinking water.  

The Genesee County Courthouse in Flint on Jan. 13, 2021.

The charges, found in online court records Wednesday, are misdemeanors punishable by up to $1,000 and a year in jail. The date of the offense is listed in court records as April 25, 2014, the day the city switched from using Detroit water to the Flint River. 

The 38-year-old Flint resident said he would wait to see if there will be a conviction. 

"I'll be elated when he'll get found guilty," Abdul-Matin said about Snyder. "I'm really focused on: Is he going to get found guilty by a jury, if he even makes it that far, and serves time for what he did?"

The reaction in Flint, a Black majority city of nearly 100,000 residents, to the news that Snyder would be charged spread quickly after it was reported Tuesday. Many said they hoped perhaps justice would finally be at hand for the one public official they felt needed to be held most accountable.

Although residents have said they have thirsted for criminal charges in the lead-contaminated water scandal, many said they were convinced it would never happen.

Lela McGee-Harvey at her home in Flint, Mich. on Jan. 13, 2021.

But it is expected to happen Thursday, including charges for up to 10 former officials including one of Snyder's top aides, Richard Baird, and former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon. The water crisis is also suspected to have triggered a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014-15 that affected more than 90 individuals, killing at least 12.

Snyder was seen in Flint as a governor who appeared indifferent to Flint's needs, even though he apologized for the water crisis to the people of Flint during his January 2016 State of the State speech. Many residents argue that it was Snyder's decision to declare a financial emergency in 2011, prompting a state takeover of city government, that led to the water source switch from the Detroit regional system to the Flint River and the lead-tainted water. 

"People died because of that water crisis, man," Abdul-Matin said. "It's bigger than just saying, 'I didn't know about it' or this person in this department was supposed to take care of that when you did have knowledge of that. I'm not elated at all. I want to see a guilty verdict."

Snyder has blamed experts in Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality for causing the lead contamination. 

Pastor Kevin Thompson at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Flint said he was elated that the charges are coming. Many of his church members over the years, including children, were highly affected by the lead in their systems, he said.

"He created the emergency manager position and the EMs came in, they made decisions as to saving money and moving our water to the Flint River, which they knew was contaminated," Thompson said. "In the process, of trying to save money, many people have become sick with the Legionnaires' outbreak, and some people have lost their lives. He's responsible."

But Thompson said he needs a judge or jury to issue true punishment to the former governor.

"It falls on his hands. It was on his watch," Thompson said about Snyder. "And he had a responsibility to protect the people and to hear the people."

At one point in April-May 2016, Snyder drank filtered Flint tap water for a month to show it had been cleaned up enough for use by the city's residents. 

The Flint water tower near the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Mich. on Jan. 13, 2021.

Brian Lennon, the former governor's attorney, said in a statement this week that it was "outrageous to think any criminal charges would be filed" against his client.

"Any charges would be meritless. Coming from an administration that claims to be above partisan politics, it is deeply disappointing to see pure political motivation driving charging decisions," Lennon said. "The Office of Special Counsel clearly needs a scapegoat after wasting five years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a fruitless investigation."

That's not how Lela McGee-Harvey sees it. The 57-year-old Flint resident felt all along Snyder should have been charged when Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette first brought charges against other Snyder administration officials, including Lyon.

"I believe that this is providence and divine enlightenment and alignment because of what our community has been through," McGee-Harvey said. "When I think about the position that Gov. Snyder was in at a time where he had the opportunity to stop with this crime. ..."

Ducks and artwork at the Flint River in Flint on Jan. 13, 2021.

"I remember us lifting up brown water, I remember us crying, I remember nobody wanting to admit that anything was going on in our community," she added.

But Lulu  Brezzell, 31, of Flint, said she was extremely disappointed with what she considered light charges.

"He's looking at a maximum of one year in jail for an entire water crisis," Brezzell said. "I'm not happy. Everyone is like, "Oh my God, he's finally getting charged.' We've waited long for these very small charges. I'm absolutely flabbergasted for waiting this long. This is what we're getting?"

Brezzell is open to hearing that the charges against him could be upgraded during the process, but "I guess we shall see. I'm not holding my breath, though."

(313) 222-2620