Orr: Flint a ‘teachable moment’ on changing how emergency managers operate in Michigan
New York — Former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said Thursday the Flint water crisis provides a “teachable moment” for Michigan to change the way emergency managers operate in financially distressed cities.
“I’m hoping it’s a teachable moment for people to realize that strictly balance-sheet analysis is not always appropriate in certain instances,” Orr said at a conference on government financial matters for media editors at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Gov. Rick Snyder and Orr made separate appearances at the journalism conference and spoke about their roles in taking Detroit through a historic bankruptcy and the lingering debate over the effectiveness of Michigan’s emergency manager law in light of Flint’s water contamination under state control.
Snyder acknowledged his own Flint water task force’s criticism of the emergency manager law that leaving one person in charge of a municipality lacks the oversight elected officials can get from voters.
The governor said there’s an overlooked appeals process in the emergency manager law that “might need to be broadened in this particular case or to go forward in the future.”
“I wish the emergency manager, just like I, would have asked more questions,” the Republican governor said.
Orr became emergency manager in March 2013 as Flint was moving to join Genesee County in breaking free of Detroit’s water system after a half-century of service and build a new regional pipeline to Lake Huron.
Flint and Genesee County officials pursued construction of the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline with hopes of getting lower-cost water. Orr was in late negotiations that failed to keep Flint in the Detroit water system, now known as the Great Lakes Water Authority.
Orr said he considered KWA to be a “competitor” and was worried Oakland County, Macomb County and even Wayne County might break away from Detroit and join the new regional water authority.
“I understand their motivation because they felt they were being gouged by DWSD,” Orr said of Flint officials.
Orr declined to comment on whether he believes Detroit was gouging Flint on water rates.
But Orr also defended the emergency manager law that empowered him to dump $7 billion of Detroit’s debt in bankruptcy court. He said there has to be practical decision-making by the state-appointed manager.
“There’s nothing wrong with the emergency manager statute,” Orr said. “The emergency manager statute is a combination of logic, judgment and compassion.”
Orr lamented how officials didn’t appear to take into consideration the low cost of corrosion control chemicals, which could have prevented lead from leaching into Flint’s water system. Municipal water regulators at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told Flint officials that corrosion control additives were not needed.
“For $140, $150 a day, none of us would be having this conversation,” said Orr, who has returned to practicing bankruptcy law at the Jones Day law firm.