By Matthew Dolan
Fears over eating produce from gardens in Flint fed by suspect water. The plight of children who drank city water but now live elsewhere. A lack of information about how to survive when lead-tainted water still flows from taps.
Those were the revelations that Gov. Rick Snyder said he gleaned Thursday from talking to Flint residents by phone during a virtual town hall about the city's drinking water crisis.
"We've learned something from every time we've done these calls," Snyder told listeners during the 45-minute call.
Phoning Flint residents and patching them in directly to the second-term Republican governor is one of the ways his administration has tried to push out information about the crisis directly to those affected.
It's also driven by a strategy hatched inside a besieged administration anxious to boost Snyder's flagging profile. The governor has taken a number of political hits after Snyder said his administration failed to protect city residents properly from lead leaching from corroding water pipes. Other critics also blame a lack of oversight by federal regulators and city officials.
Snyder's popularity and job approval numbers plummeted as a result of the Flint drinking water catastrophe, with 69% of those surveyed in late January saying the governor has handled the crisis poorly. Several prominent Democrats, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, have called for Snyder's resignation.
The governor has rebuffed those calls, saying he is dedicated to restoring safe water for the city and aiding those affected by the crisis, including children who may have consumed lead-tainted water.
While the audience appears broad and diverse on the conference calls, Snyder's staff is able to control the questions from callers. The dial-in experience also does not require the governor to appear in a public forum in Flint where residents could be joined by disruptive protesters.
Before Thursday's call, the governor held two previous calls that drew a total of 12,667 callers, according to his staff. Of them, 739 people pressed zero to ask a question.
All who didn't get to ask a questions received a letter from the governor's office with information on water resources and how to contact officials directly. For those who didn't answer their phones, 27,750 voice messages have been left with similar information.
Tele-town halls are not a new communications strategy. They have been a common method, for example, used by members of Congress to reach out to constituents.
Calling Flint residents directly was one of a number of public relations options outlined in recent weeks by Mission Flint. That team of state officials led by Richard Baird, a top aide to the governor, was set up to address the long-term needs of Flint and its nearly 100,000 residents.
Some critics have questioned why Snyder has not appeared in public at an open meeting with the general public to answer questions directly about the water issue. His spokesman Dave Murray said that idea is still on the table.
"We're looking into some possibilities, but nothing has been scheduled yet," Murray said in an e-mail. "One of the television stations had a town hall, but the timing didn't work out, so we recorded an interview with the station earlier in the day that it could play during the event."
Since he declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5, Snyder has been a near-constant presence in the city. Most of the time he is there, officials said, Snyder stops at a place to talk to residents and thank volunteers. His appearances are usually announced only shortly before he arrives.
On Thursday, he visited the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to talk about nutritional food distribution. He's also spent time at fire stations where water, filters, replacement cartridges and testing kits are being distributed.
Last Friday, Snyder appeared Our Lady of Guadalupe church to speak to people about efforts to reach every home in the city. He attended a Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast at University of Michigan-Flint and stopped at every table to talk to people.
He has appeared at news conferences in Flint City Hall, met with local pastors and attended two meetings of the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, the second of which was live-streamed on the Internet.
Administration officials argue that the smaller events give people a unique chance to share their thoughts with the governor directly.
On Thursday, the questions were straightforward and no one directly criticized the governor or the response of his administration. Two callers thanked Snyder for taking the time to address their concerns individually.
Most callers did not identify themselves by their full names. One caller who said her name was Tisha asked about water deliveries for a 91-year-old Flint resident. Darlene inquired about reimbursement for her water bill. Another caller simply asked how long it would take to see safe water flow through her tap again.
A constant theme was why the state has not immediately begun to dig up the city's lead pipes and replace them with those that wouldn't leach into the drinking water.
Snyder responded that his administration first needed to assess the location and condition of the city's lead piping starting this month. Premature removal of damaged pipes, he said, may cause more harm than good if the replacement effort was not done correctly.
"If it's not done properly," he said. "It can result in more lead into the system."
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press