Flint crisis spurs calls to change Michigan open-records law
Lansing — Under fire for his administration’s role in Flint’s lead-tainted water emergency, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder did something that would be legally required in most other states by releasing his government emails related to the crisis.
He did not release them all, however.
The 274 pages cover 2014 and 2015, including an 18-month period during which the city switched its water source to the Flint River while under state financial management until it reconnected to Detroit’s system because of lead contamination blamed on state regulatory failures. Snyder withheld the emails of everyone else in the 70-person executive office along with his own emails from his first three years in office.
Also left out were an unknown number of messages the public sent to the governor’s office about Flint water through the state website and his staff’s responses.
Michigan is one of two states to wholly exempt the governor’s office from public-records requests. Some others exempt their governor’s “working papers,” which can include memos and correspondence.
The emergency in Flint has reinvigorated efforts to subject the governor to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Michigan also is among a minority of states where individual lawmakers are exempt.
Snyder, who has apologized for the disaster and his administration’s mistakes, has said he did not clearly know the full extent of the water’s danger until around Oct. 1, when state health officials confirmed elevated blood-lead levels in children after doubting outside experts. Democrats want the Republican to release emails from 2012 and 2013, when emergency managers he appointed to run the city considered and approved the water switch.
They say that given other issues with the water — boil-water advisories, high levels of a disinfectant byproduct, complaints about smell and taste, and a General Motors plant’s decision to no longer use it because of rust — it is unlikely that Snyder did not know earlier about its potential risks.
“In order to have full accountability and transparency, we need to be able to demonstrate that beyond a shadow of a doubt. The only way we’re going to be able to do that is to get access to these documents that almost in every other state the public and press would have,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon.
As a legislator, Dillon unsuccessfully pushed to expand the public records law to include the governor, lieutenant governor, legislators and their offices.
Snyder, who has rejected calls to resign over the water crisis and pledged to fix it, has called the release of his emails unprecedented.
“His emails are the most relevant. People were asking what the governor knew about the lead issue and when he became aware of the severity of the challenges,” spokesman Dave Murray said. “The 2014-2015 emails were selected because the time period covers the years when people started raising issues about the color and odor of the water after the switch, and reveal what the governor was being told by staff members and state departments.”
Asked Friday whether his office and the Legislature should be subject to FOIA, Snyder told a roomful of journalists that he would “love to have that discussion” with lawmakers. He said a broader analysis of better government transparency is underway because of Michigan’s low ranking nationally, including a look at best practices elsewhere.
The emails that Snyder did release show he was made aware of Flint’s water troubles.
In October 2014, he received a memo about e-coli detections that led to boil-water advisories. The following February, an aide sent background information mentioning a Flint-area legislator’s letter to Snyder warning that people “are on the verge of civil unrest.” He also learned of health risks associated with long-term exposure to the disinfectant byproducts but was told that state regulators were working with the city to address it.
Then in September, Snyder’s office quietly facilitated the delivery of 1,500 kitchen filters to residents from an anonymous donor after pastors complained about water quality, according to his emails. Weeks later, after a Virginia Tech expert and local doctors raised alarms about lead contamination, Snyder’s chief of staff at the time, Dennis Muchmore, told Snyder that state and federal officials could find no evidence of a major rise in lead levels.
Michigan’s environmental and health agencies “feel that some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state,” he wrote.
Within a week, the Snyder administration reversed course and confirmed findings that Flint’s water was creating a health threat in old homes with lead pipes or pipes fused with lead solder and corroborated elevated levels of lead in blood in two local ZIP codes.
While Snyder and executive office employees are exempt from FOIA, the rest of the executive branch is not, which is why some email correspondence between his aides and other state employees has been made public. In July, Muchmore expressed concern to state health officials that Flint residents were “basically getting blown off.”
The liberal good-government group Common Cause said expanding FOIA would give the public access to more than just emails, such as schedules and internal documents. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, though, said Snyder has done a “really good job” releasing information.
“It’s simply not enough to release handpicked emails that tell the public only what Governor Snyder wants them to know about the poisoning of Flint’s water,” Common Cause Michigan Executive Director Melanie McElroy said. “That’s not accountability.”
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