Who Is Really to Blame for Flint?

It's easy to point to politics. But the poisoning of the city's water reflects a failure of essential institutions of government.
February 5, 2016
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

The unfolding coverage of the crisis over lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich., is focused almost exclusively on political failures. This is reminiscent of the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in that it frames this question: "What did the political authorities know about the problem and when did they know it?"

We therefore see the emails and other communications featured in the news accounts of the crisis in a political context. As embarrassing as it may be in hindsight, the content of the communications that emanated from the responsible political authorities was political. In short, the political authorities offered everyday political responses to what they regarded as political challenges.

But for the residents of Flint, the complaints and challenges weren't political. The complaining and challenging parties were not engaging in, and had no wish to engage in, political communications. They were water consumers who feared that their water was not only disgusting but also unsafe and wanted to know if their fears were warranted. They had no wish to engage in politics; they wanted to engage in substantive, evidence-based discussions about water quality and health.

So it came to pass that the political authorities on the one hand and Flint's water consumers on the other talked past each other until it was no longer possible to do so. Not until the grim facts were self-evident did the discussion become one about water.

We repeat this process every time there is a new crisis. We ask, "Who is responsible for this outrage?" And we find a new set of political authorities to blame. Sometimes, as in Flint, the conduct of the political authorities is so outrageous that it beggars belief. (Is it not a crime to poison people with lead?)

But as sickening and abusive as the political authorities were in Flint, what happened in the political arena is only part of the story. The other part of the story is what happened to Flint's institution of local government, which has been reduced over the years from a proud and successful one to a bare remnant, in part through the imposition of state-appointed emergency managers. The rationale was that Flint could no longer afford to support a viable, professional local government. But this rationale cannot hold.

Unfortunately for the people of Flint, and for people everywhere in the same boat, the absence of viable and professional local government is hugely more expensive than its presence. We see this everywhere we look, whether the object of our gaze is education, police services, disaster preparation and response, or any other essential service.

The city-government institution in Flint has been all but abandoned. But it has done no one any good to save the money that is no longer spent in support of that institution. Nearly 100,000 people live in Flint. They need the goods and services that city halls everywhere produce. It should not be an option, anywhere in our country, to dispense with those services.

I hope and trust that no one in our country thinks that people who cannot afford lead-free water should, along with their children, have to drink contaminated water. In exactly the same way, no one in our country, regardless of their economic wherewithal, should have to contend with a wide range of abuses and indignities that are in fact all too commonplace.

We ought to have long since learned that we cannot afford, as a country, to let essential institutions of government fail. The cost of each failure is far greater than the cost of avoiding it would have been. Experienced government professionals everywhere know this. The vast majority of politicians know it too. But no one dares to suggest a mechanism to put this knowledge into practice. So we drift from one outrage to the next.