Moss: Flint crisis a chance to create a better future

Kary L. Moss

Mia Farrow and Cher are tweeting. National media outlets are at full attention. The director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the agency’s spokesperson have resigned. Several lawsuits have been filed. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Snyder, set to deliver his State of the State address on Jan. 19, has apologized and declared a state of emergency. An interim task force appointed by the governor has concluded that state environmental officials downplayed residents’ complaints and vehemently disputed local studies that have caused a spike in blood-lead levels among children. The Department of Justice has announced that it is conducting an investigation.

After months of being ignored and glossed over, the Flint water crisis now seems to command everyone’s attention.

There are many issues of concern. I am interested in accountability. Never again should residents be poisoned by their own drinking water. Never again should state officials get away with what the governor’s interim task force called a practice of “aggressive dismissal, belittlement and attempts to discredit” independent studies.

I am interested in transparency. Never again should our Freedom of Information Act laws be used to delay and prevent the acquisition of important information. Never again should an emergency manager law enable one person to make decisions that are immune from public scrutiny and opposition.

I am interested in what lay behind that “persistent tone of scorn and derision” that the governor’s task force used to describe the behavior of MDEQ officials toward those who complained about smelly and bad-tasting water. It saddens me to surmise that it is the logical outcome of the scorn and derision toward a community that is not wealthy, does not generate a lot of tax revenue, has little political influence and is a majority black urban area.

I am interested in seeing what kind of leadership Snyder will bring to bear in addressing the crisis and whether he and the Legislature can move past partisan politics to find remedies this community deserves.

Some “fixes” are obvious. Snyder has charged an inter-agency task force to provide filters, test the blood of children, and develop estimates of how much money is needed. But if that’s the end, it will fall tragically short. What more is needed?

■ The state should immediately provide enhanced, increased and specialized services in the Flint public schools as recommended by top experts to serve all the district’s children.

We know the consequences of what has happened will plague these children for years, and many will have behavioral issues that will feed the school-to-prison pipeline. Redress shouldn’t have to be forced by a lawsuit.

■ The Legislature should repeal the emergency manager law. This law has been disproportionately used against communities of color and what happened in Flint shows what’s possible when the financial bottom line is the top priority.

■ Our lawmakers should amend the Freedom of Information Act to require the governor’s office to comply.

Michigan is one of only two states in the country that exempts the governor’s office from FOIA requests. As Judge Damon Keith once said: “Democracies die behind closed doors.”

But this disaster demands more. It’s an opportunity to imagine a better future for Flint residents and do something about it. It requires the governor and Legislature to imagine “transformation” as the goal. Fully engage the community in deciding what investments and other changes could finally help this city move past decades of massive disinvestment and embedded poverty.

Real leadership requires that Flint residents decide for themselves what infrastructure investments would foster opportunity and to identify the fastest ways around racial and class barriers to empowerment and inclusion. It requires the state marshal its resources, and call on the federal government to do the same, to then make it happen.

Only then, will we even begin to repair the damage done.

Kary L. Moss is executive director, ACLU of Michigan.