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Darnell Earley: The man in power during Flint switch

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — It has become a haunting moment: Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and Mayor Dayne Walling both tasting Flint River water, a drinking source that eventually led to one of the biggest health crises in Michigan history.

That day on April 25, 2014, when Flint was switched to the corrosive water that would eventually expose its residents to high levels of lead has catapulted both men to testify before Congress Tuesday in a week when others, including Gov. Rick Snyder, are also expected to appear.

But much of the spotlight has been on Earley, the longtime urban administrator and expert who had previously worked in Flint, because he was in charge during the transition from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River while a new Karegnondi Water Authority was built.

“At no time did the water department staff, Mayor Walling, the City Council, or the state petition me to halt, slow, or otherwise modify the implementation of the plan. Nor at any point and time during the preparation for the switch, did I receive any information that would even remotely indicate that the use of the Flint River was unsafe in any way,” he wrote in prepared remarks released Monday by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Instead, those at the local level were pleased with the project’s value as well as the independence from DWSD that it represented.”

Ex-Flint officials deflect blame in crisis

Ex-Flint officials deflect blame in crisis

After serving as the emergency manager of Flint, he left in January 2015 to become the emergency manager in Detroit Public Schools until he resigned last month.

Critics say Earley’s style was aloof and off-putting and that he is primarily responsible for allowing the Flint River move that has riled the country. Allies say he is a scapegoat for decisions made prior to his tenure and that he was carrying out the wishes of the state government looking to save money.

“He was a gruff, nasty, arrogant, non-listening kind of guy,” said Eric Mays, a city councilman who had many run-ins with Earley after being elected in November 2013 and being among the first to raise questions about the water.

“I’m kind of smiling because of what goes around comes around. Earley is getting the kind of questioning and scrutiny that he deserves,” he said. “I can tell you in my mind, the buck stops with Earley. I can tell you 100 percent Earley wouldn’t listen.”

But the Rev. Marlon Jennings, who was Earley’s pastor at Grace Emmanuel Baptist Church when he was in Flint as both a city administrator years earlier and then later as an emergency manager, called Earley a “man of integrity and conscious” who knows heartbreak after losing his late wife to cancer in 2003.

“It’s unfortunate that he was caught up in this quagmire of responsibility to the governor and his position and at the same time trying to serve the people of Flint,” Jennings said. “It turned out that the two were diametrically opposed. His job as emergency manager is to carry out the wishes and execute the plan and program of the governor.”

Snyder appointed Earley to become emergency manager of Flint in October 2013, following Michael Brown and Edward Kurtz.

Kurtz approved Flint’s move to the Karegnondi Water Authority in April 2013 and signed off that June on a resolution seemingly committing the city to using water from the river. But it was Earley who was in power in March 2014 when Detroit’s final water rate offer was rejected and the city began drawing water from the Flint River the following month.

“The reality is such, that with so many challenges facing distressed urban areas, like Flint, an emergency manager must rely on the experts around him, especially when matters of such scientific complexity as water contamination and treatment are at the forefront,” Earley wrote in his testimony. “At the time, I deeply believed the information offered to me was accurate and sound, but, in relying on experts, the solutions I oversaw failed to ameliorate the troubles plaguing Flint’s water.”

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Earley had extensive experience to warrant the Snyder appointment, beginning with his service as a director of community development with the Urban League in Muskegon from 1978 to 1981.

Throughout the years he held a variety of roles, including township manager in Buena Vista Charter Township and budget director and deputy county controller in Ingham County. In 2001, he was appointed city administrator of Flint and even served as temporary mayor for five months. Before becoming EM of Flint, he served as city manager in Saginaw.

Through a spokesman, Earley has declined an interview request. But in an editorial that appeared last year in The News, he said the decision to separate from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was approved by “Flint’s mayor and confirmed by a City Council vote of 7-1.”

“At the time the decision was made, there was no way to predict such an unfortunate outcome,” Earley wrote. “I would also offer that had local leaders known then what they know now, parts of their decision may have been entirely different. What the city of Flint and the state of Michigan are now dealing with is the management of an unintended consequence resulting in a negative outcome from an otherwise sound public policy decision.”

In that letter, Earley said the mayor’s approval of the plan and the “near unanimous” vote by the City Council “were in no way coerced, forced or demanded by the state, nor any emergency manager.”

The decision to switch the water, Jennings said, was done before Earley’s arrival but “then he was given the responsibility of executing that agenda.”

“He wanted to stay faithful and accountable to an employer, the governor, but at the same time, he really sought to serve the people and to do what he truly believed and was told would serve the people of Flint in the best way.”

Walling, who worked with Earley, said of “all the emergency managers up to that point, Darnell Earley engaged myself and City Council more over time as we moved toward the point of ending the financial emergency.”

Earley, he said, was responsible for developing “a clear plan for transition” with the mayor and City Council.

“It took him a few months to figure out how he wanted to proceed through what he thought would be an 18-month appointment,” Walling said.

“To his credit, he was an experienced city manager who understood the need to involve the city’s elected and appointed leadership. But he was highly reluctant to engage the broader community.”

And Mays, who has been a frequent critic of Earley since he issued an executive order banning him from talking to city staff after an arrest in 2013 on suspicion of drunken driving, said that was Earley’s downfall.

“This guy didn’t do his due diligence. I know for a fact he could have done a lot more,” Mays charged. “Earley had a duty and a responsibility to know.”

Walling, the former mayor, admitted that Earley himself “very well could have been misled” by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as to the quality of the water.

Bill Reising, an attorney who did some work for Flint back when Earley was the city administrator, said the two of them later became good friends. He said Earley is looking forward to testifying and telling “his side to the story.”

“Darnell Earley was a straight shooter,” Reising said. “To my way of thinking, he’s always been a straight shooter and always wanted to do the right thing. I think he wants to set the record straight, so to speak, in terms of what his involvement was for the city of Flint.”

Jennings said Earley’s situation is eerily similar to that of Colin Powell when he served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush and told the nation that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when in fact it did not.

“He wasn’t misleading the people. He had been misled,” the pastor said of Earley. “He was given bad advice and information so he passed that on, thinking that the person he was serving had given him good information.

“And that’s almost a perfect parallel to where Darnell Earley is based on the plans he was told this would save money and it would be just as good in terms of quality.”

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