Aide: Gov. wanted Flint fix without declaring emergency

Johnathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder could have declared a state emergency in Flint months before he did but was directing top staff to explore other options to fix the water contamination crisis, according to new administration emails released this weekend.

“Boss wants us to work through this without a disaster declaration if (possible),” Transformation Manager Rich Baird wrote in a Nov. 26 email to Col. Kriste Etue, director of the Michigan State Police.

Snyder eventually would declare a state emergency on Jan. 5, more than three months after he had first announced in October a “comprehensive action plan” for Flint, where experts had found elevated lead levels in water and the blood of some children.

Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder, said the governor had asked staff to “be prepared in many different ways” and have multiple plans for addressing the crisis. Baird, he said, was exploring what a state response would look like without an emergency declaration.

“It wasn’t that the governor didn’t want to do an emergency declaration,” said Adler. “…He simply wanted to be prepared with different options.”

Baird’s message was among more than 16,500 pages of emails released Friday and Saturday by the Snyder administration, which is not subject to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act but decided to voluntarily share documents related to the Flint crisis.

Etue had contacted Baird because of a question from Capt. Chris Kelenske, the deputy state director of emergency management and homeland security, who said he had heard Flint Mayor Karen Weaver on the radio discussing the city’s need for a disaster declaration.

Earlier that month, Kelenske had written Snyder’s Deputy Legal Counsel Paul Smith with an overview of the state emergency declaration process.

“As you know, the Governor can declare at any time for any reason,” Kelenske wrote, citing the state Emergency Management Act of 1976. The law defines “emergency” in part as “any occasion or instance in which the governor determines state assistance is needed to supplement local efforts and capabilities to save lives, protect property and the public health and safety.”

Kelenske noted that a declaration would activate the state police command and control center and allow the state to tap emergency contingency funds.

But Kelenske also warned that a declaration “could be viewed as the state having owned up to how the water issue was caused (e.g. ‘The triggering event was caused by the state; that is why the state is now declaring.’).”

Prior to his Jan. 5 declaration, Snyder and his staff had publicly explained that he could not declare a state emergency until local governments had done so, a claim that Kelenske’s email contradicts.

On Monday, Adler agreed the governor could have taken the emergency step, but it would have been a rarity in such situations.

“It is allowed,” he said. “It is extraordinary for them to do that without locals asking for a declaration based on the fact that their resources are not adequate. It is traditionally something that would be done only if you have significant one day event or two day event, like a tornado touching down in a community, where it is immediately apparent that local resources will not be able to keep up.”

Flint declared a local emergency on Dec. 14 and Genesee County followed suit on Jan. 4, formally requesting a state declaration.

Kelenske, in a Jan. 5 email to the governor’s top aides, said state police had reviewed the county request and concluded that a state declaration was warranted because “the situation is sufficiently widespread and severe.”

He noted that “the presence of lead in drinking water has been documented” and that “the full extent and required remediation remain unknown.”

“The potential fiscal impact to the city of Flint is severe,” he wrote. “The current situation poses an extraordinary financial burden.”

Snyder declared a state of emergency for Genesee County that afternoon, saying he had made available all state resources in cooperation with local response and recovery operations.

Weaver told The Flint Journal she had not expected the governor’s decision to happen so quickly, a statement the administration would privately celebrate.

“Exceeding expectations should be the goal,” Lieutenant Gov. Brian Calley wrote in an evening email sent to top aides and Snyder. “Great work everyone on making this happen today.”

Even after the declaration, Snyder maintained that he had appropriately followed “this whole process” of waiting for the city and county to first issue local declaration.

“In terms of the declaration process, that really follows a protocol that says it goes from the city declaring to the county to the state,” Snyder said at a Jan. 11 news conference. “Those actions were not taken until the new mayor took office.”

Snyder made that statement with Kelenske and the Flint mayor standing at his side.

After the state helped Flint switch back to Detroit’s water, Snyder said there had been 12,000 water filters distributed to Flint homes during that three month period.

“But it’s not good enough so it needed to go to another level, and that’s what we’re doing now,” Snyder said Jan. 11, six days after the state of emergency declaration.

Baird also attended the news conference at Flint City Hall, standing on the sidelines with new Snyder Chief of Staff Jarrod Agen.