Flint panel: EM law part of ‘environmental injustice’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A lack of local input under state-appointed emergency managers is one reason the Flint water contamination crisis is “a clear case” of environmental injustice, the Republican co-chair of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force told legislators Tuesday.

Residents in the minority-majority city did not have “meaningful voice” in local decisions that led to the crisis, former state Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema said in testimony before the Joint Select Committee on The Flint Water Public Health Emergency.

They also “did not get equal treatment” when it came to public health and access to safe drinking water available in neighboring communities, said Sikkema, now a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants.

“When we convened, we had the same conversation that a lot of people have had, both privately and publicly: If this had happened in East Grand Rapids, in Kent County where I live, or in Bloomfield Hills in Oakland County, would the same result have occurred?” he said.

Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, a Flint pediatrician and member of the governor’s task force, noted the city’s high rate of minority and low-income residents as he told legislators that government officials routinely ignored residents’ water quality complaints.

“If that’s not an injustice, I don’t know what is,” Reynolds said.

The task force, in its final report released last month, primarily blamed the Flint water crisis on state government. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not require corrosion-control chemicals that experts say could have prevented lead contamination when the city began using Flint River water in April 2014.

The report also blamed “misjudgments” by emergency managers who presided over the water source switch and recommended changes to the controversial state law, which gives a single state appointee broad powers over financially distressed local governments.

“The emergency managers bring nothing and they leave less, because their primary function is financial and there’s very little concern for the safety of citizens and no ability to respond to emergencies,” said Reynolds, who was particularly critical of the law.

Task force members also criticized what they called a culture of “minimalist technical compliance” in state government, and said agencies failed in their primary responsibility to protect public health and the environment.

Changes “have to start at the top,” said Sikkema, noting task force recommendations that focused on the governor’s office. “They start with leadership articulating the kind of culture they want.”

The task force recommended the state review its emergency manager law and “identify measures to compensate for the loss of checks and balances” provided under a traditional form of representative government.

The report suggested the state could provide support and expertise to emergency managers beyond the financial advice the Treasury Department provides. The task force also recommended the state name an ombudsman tasked with ensuring local voices are engaged in decision-making.

“The emergency manager structure does a tremendous job providing support and help on the financial piece, but it’s sort of loosey-goosey on everything else,” Sikkema said.

Snyder has said he is willing to consider changes to the emergency manager law, which was strengthened in 2011, repealed by voters in 2012 but then quickly modified and re-implemented by the Republican-led Legislature.

“Dramatic changes, in my opinion, need to be made,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said at a break in Tuesday’s hours-long hearing. “Other folks may want to tweak it, but when you take away full ability for citizens to have any recourse or any place to go to, you see obviously pretty tragic results in Flint.”

Republican legislators also appear to be warming up to possibly changing the emergency manager law.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Tuesday he is “hopeful it can be improved” but indicated his caucus has not yet had in-depth discussions about possible changes.

“The recommendations that the task force have put forward are certainly a good start to looking at some of those solutions,” said Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, who chairs the Flint committee.

“I think that there is an important role for us to be able to help those communities that are in financial distress,” Stamas said. “How we develop that is a continuous process.”