Editorial: Charges send a message of accountability
Everyone makes mistakes at work. They don’t usually result in criminal charges. But three employees of the state and city of Flint are facing criminal charges for botching their jobs, and then covering it up.
This latest twist in the Flint water crisis seeks to hold accountable workers who rarely have to answer for their decision-making, unless they are caught stuffing taxpayer cash into their pockets.
The message is that the civil servants who staff government agencies and offices, and who enjoy broad protections against firing and discipline, are not immune from the consequences of their actions.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, in announcing the indictments Wednesday, tried to build the argument that the massive government failure in Flint, while certainly a breakdown in the institution, was also the fault of individuals who failed at their responsibilities.
He was careful to add that more indictments are coming, and that should make the higher-level decision-makers in this mess nervous.
Schuette walked through the progression of misdeeds that resulted in the six felony charges, and a spate of misdemeanor claims. In most cases, they started with a mistake, developed into negligence and then, allegedly, into intentional acts.
For example, the decision not to add anti-corrosives to the water was certainly a mistake, and not correcting it even after it was brought to light was grossly negligent. But then came a cover-up, according to the charges. The indictments accuse the three of intentionally falsifying records and improperly testing for lead in water apparently to produce better results.
The consequences are well known now. For more than a year, Flint residents consumed water that was tainted from lead that leached out of service lines. Hundreds of children in the city have elevated levels of lead in their blood, which could cause them serious developmental problems.
The indictments should serve as a wake-up call throughout government. Those who hold the well-being of the public in their hands must be diligent in their duties and protective of those they serve.
Flint was a break in trust with government at a number of levels.
Schuette has indicated that these indictments are just beginning. He expects more charges against more individuals in coming weeks.
The investigation is appropriate.
Those who are responsible for making sure drinking water is safe, or keeping the public safe in other ways, must be held to a high standard.
And they never should feel as if they are beyond the reach of accountability.