The situation of the contaminated drinking water in Flint, and government’s response, has come under national scrutiny ever since mid-2015 when a local researcher determined that high levels of toxic lead were potentially affecting the health of the city’s citizens. Officials ranging from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, to state and local government officials and technicians have sought to deflect blame over decisions that led to ineffective treatment of the city’s drinking water that leached the lead into the aging systems of pipes.
Several investigations and lawsuits have ensued, one of which has resulted in criminal indictments of two state environmental quality officials and a Flint water official. In the background is Flint’s history of unemployment, crime, tax revenue shortfalls, and near bankruptcy that brought about nearly ten years of interventions by the state government into the city’s management and finances. While the contamination of the water has been the focus of attention, the role of local government in the crisis has largely been ignored.
In an effort to seek the root causes of the decision-making that led not only to switching from sourcing the city’s water from Lake Huron through the Detroit water system, but also the failure to add essential anti-corrosion materials to the water and thus avoid leaching, Spero News interviewed James Hohman, an economic analyst who serves as assistant director of research at the Mackinac Center – a think-tank based in Michigan.
Democrats have regularly represented Flint and Genesee County in the U.S. House of Representatives since the early 1970s, while the mayor’s office and city council have been largely Democrats during that time. Flint is the birthplace of General Motors and was the scene of the famous Sit-Down Strike of the late 1920s that established the United Auto Workers union for decades as one of the biggest players, locally, regionally and nationally in the wider labor movement and the Democratic Party.
James Hohman - Mackinac Center
Hohman started the ball rolling in an exclusive interview by referring to one of the reasons the city of Flint had been assigned a state-imposed manager. “One of the reasons the city of Flint had an emergency manager in the first place is because city officials were taking money out of the water and sewer fund and using that to fund general operations, which was a no-no.” The city had been facing insolvency after struggling for years. While city officials saw no choice but to raid the water fund for their operating budget, at the same time they did not make necessary cuts in spending, said Hohman.
While Gov. Snyder has taken some responsibility for the failures of government in Flint, said Hohman, partisans on the issue still call for his resignation and have not been satisfied. “There is fault all around,” said Hohman, including the emergency manager, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, and local water treatment personnel. “There was a long causal train that led to the harms that went on in Flint.” He added, “It wasn’t just one person that caused it.” Hohman said that the city hired professional water experts to ensure that the water would not harm Flint’s residents. One of the reports on the crisis, said Hohman, expressed skepticism about the supposed value added by the consultants. Most governments do “a pretty good job,” he said, of providing clean drinking water. “It’s not exclusive a government failure, but it is the government’s responsibility,” Hohman said. “In this case, it was a complete failure.”
As to citizens’ reaction to the crisis and their heightened skepticism about government, Hohman pointed out that Flint has been one of the most violent cities in the nation. “Their police and fire-fighting services may not have been providing all of the protection that was needed in a place that was struggling, and has not had the most responsive government in the first place.” But government in general, he said, cannot be blanketed with the blame. “This kind of problem is not going on in the rest of the nation.”
As for the politics of the water crisis, Hohman said: “In this case, there are a lot of people who are trying to abuse the poisoning of Flint residents for their own partisan gains.”
This assigning of blame is inappropriate, he said, while pointing out that many of the people who made decisions about the water were in non-partisan government roles. “It is inappropriate to blame one particular party, or one particular ideology, when there are so many at play and so many different pieces of failure that led to this situation we have,” said Hohman.