Cotter amendment helps cronies, not Flint

Ron Bieber

Whenever things go wrong in Lansing, politicians always look for someone else to blame. That’s exactly what’s happening right now with the Flint water crisis.

Instead of getting rid of the failed emergency manager law or firing Gov. Rick Snyder’s incompetent political appointees who ignored the crisis for nearly a year, Republicans are passing the buck and blaming state employees.

But don’t take my word for it. That’s essentially what we heard from Jim Sygo, the governor’s chief deputy director at the Department of Environmental Quality, during an investigation with Michigan State Police back in March.

Sygo said two of the administration’s main scapegoats in Flint — Liane Shekter Smith and Stephen Busch — had done a “terrific” job.

“He felt there was politics involved with the Flint water issue,” said state police Lt. Lisa Rish in her report. “Mr. Sygo said he felt that Ms. Shekter Smith was ‘thrown under the bus’ and Mr. Busch ‘was probably there, too.’ ”

Michigan has laws that are supposed to protect civil servants from political retribution. The Civil Service Commission was created to protect state employees from political meddling, and prevent elected officials from stuffing state government with unqualified political cronies.

But now Speaker Kevin Cotter wants to gut Michigan’s civil service laws with a constitutional amendment that will make it easier for politicians to fire state employees without due process.

This would be a big mistake that will make state government less accountable to taxpayers. Giving politicians virtually unchecked power to punish and replace civil servants with their political cronies is a recipe for disaster.

When it comes to hiring people for critical positions in state government — like protecting our drinking water — we need the best and brightest. The last thing we need in state government is more people like Darnell Earley, the inept emergency manager who approved switching Flint’s water source.

Cotter’s right, we do need to hold people in state government accountable when they fail to fulfill their duties. But if you listen to the speaker, you would think it’s virtually impossible to fire a state employee. That’s simply not true.

Not only is there a process in place for dismissing civil servants, but state employee firings are actually on the rise under Snyder. During his first five years in office, Snyder’s administration fired nearly 1,600 employees, compared to 1,200 during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s first five years in office.

Cotter insists his amendment has nothing to do with the Flint water crisis. That’s complete hogwash.

This is about covering the governor’s hide and giving Republican politicians an excuse to pretend like they’re doing something to hold people accountable for the disaster in Flint. Since a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to advance to the ballot, Cotter knows his amendment isn’t going anywhere. It’s window dressing, plain and simple.

If the speaker and his colleagues want to get serious about making state government more accountable, they should start by passing legislation that makes the Legislature and governor subject to the Freedom of Information Act. They can also repeal the emergency manager law, which was the real root cause of the Flint water crisis.

Nothing can ever undo the damage in Flint. But unlike Cotter’s bogus amendment, these actions will make government more open and accountable, and might actually help prevent another tragedy like this from ever happening again.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.