Flint Water Crisis Clouds Rick Snyder's Upcoming State Address
By Paul Egan
Last year at this time, Gov. Rick Snyder was boasting about the state's financial accomplishments, toying with a presidential run, and delivering a State of the State address that said his administration would ensure all Michigan residents could be pulled along by Michigan's "river of opportunity."
But as Snyder prepares to deliver his sixth State of the State address on Tuesday, his political capital has plummeted, the state is grappling with what could be a billion-dollar mistake with incalculable consequences for human lives, and his river analogy is particularly unfortunate in light of a state-appointed emergency manager's 2014 decision to save money by temporarily drawing Flint's drinking water from the polluted and corrosive Flint River. That move, followed by other state errors, has led to a public health crisis, allegations of a state government cover-up, and Saturday's declaration of a federal emergency in Flint by President Barack Obama.
Amid calls for his resignation, stunning vitriol directed at him through social media and protests planned outside his Ann Arbor home today and in front of the Capitol on Tuesday, Snyder will deliver one of the most closely watched State of the State addresses in Michigan history.
"I can't think of another governor that really had this level of crisis at a State of the State," said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a veteran Lansing public relations and crisis communications consultant and CEO of Truscott Rossman.
"It's probably the most important speech he will give in his entire public career."
Ideally, Snyder would invite to the address some of the heroes who helped expose the lead-contamination crisis, such as pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Children's Hospital and drinking water researcher Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, Rossman-McKinney said. He should publicly acknowledge them and thank them for forcing action by his administration, she said.
Dennis Muchmore, Snyder's outgoing chief of staff, said Friday he expects the governor will confront the lead contamination of Flint's drinking water early and prominently in his address, setting out a comprehensive plan for addressing not only the health-related issues in Flint, but the infrastructure problems there and in other cities around the state.
Snyder has publicly apologized for the state's role in the catastrophe. But given the fact complaints about the taste, smell and appearance of Flint's drinking water began shortly after the switch in April 2014 and continued for 18 months, many citizens aren't buying Snyder's claim that he wasn't aware of the seriousness of the health issue until about Oct. 1 of this year.
"Were they getting their information from Pluto?" asked Mark Grudt, a Livonia resident who works in construction as a remodeler. "We've known there's a problem in Flint for over a year," and "had this been an affluent community, it wouldn't have gotten this far."
The fact the contamination happened while Flint was under a state emergency manager also vaults the scandal beyond contaminated water, calling into question broader policies of the Snyder administration. Michigan voters used a referendum to reject a toughened emergency manager law Snyder pushed through the Legislature in 2011, only to see the governor sign a similar -- but referendum-proof -- bill that lawmakers quickly passed in 2012.
Matt Friedman, cofounder of the Farmington Hills public relations firm Tanner Friedman, said Snyder -- a former computer company executive and venture capitalist who was a political novice when he took office in 2011 -- should prepare for Tuesday by taking a page from the crisis-management guide for corporate CEOs.
Snyder needs to lay out the facts of the crisis, provide reassurance by telling what is being done to help and to assure nothing similar can happen in the future, and express concern for the affected people of Flint, Friedman said.
He needs to raise the Flint issue almost immediately, or the audience will be so distracted wondering when he is going to raise it that they won't be able to concentrate on what he is saying, Friedman said.
It can't hurt to apologize again, but "if you keep apologizing, then you're not really saying anything," he said.
Friedman said the philosophy that keeps CEOs out of devastating scandals is to always put the interests and safety of the customer first. Unfortunately, a culture frequently found in corporations and government is to never say or do anything that will make the boss look bad, he said. That can lead to problems being covered over until they explode out of control, as it appears happened in this case.
Snyder should also spend part of the speech talking about other priorities, because "while this is enormously important to people, there are other priorities," Friedman said.
The governor has no shortage of other important issues requiring attention, including the dire financial condition of Detroit Public Schools, planned criminal justice reforms, and a reshaped state energy policy. Snyder gave few hints about the contents of his speech when he toured the North American International Auto Show on Tuesday.
"We've done well economically, but there are people still not participating in that recovery," he told the Free Press.
J. Cherie Strachan, a professor of political science and public administration at Central Michigan University who has studied gubernatorial inaugural addresses, said Snyder is likely to either ignore the Flint lead contamination issue or raise it in a way that emphasizes actions he has taken to address it, such as declaring a state of emergency on Jan. 5 and activating the Michigan National Guard to assist with distribution of bottled water and water filters on Tuesday.
No matter what Snyder says, the issue is not going away, and a series of disclosures such as a July e-mail from Snyder's chief of staff expressing frustration that the health concerns of Flint residents were being "blown off," have made the scandal worse, Strachan said.
Though the human health and infrastructure costs are getting most of the attention, Strachan said the Flint water crisis also tears at the fabric of civil society, destroying citizens' trust in government.
Internal records of Snyder's office are exempt from Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, and Common Cause in Michigan called on Snyder Friday to use the State of the State address to announce he will release all state records related to the Flint crisis and ask the Legislature to remove the executive office's exemption from FOIA.
A lack of state government transparency is one reason it took Flint residents so long to learn they were being poisoned with lead, said Melanie McElroy, the group's executive director.
Rossman-McKinney said Snyder should not only apologize during the speech, but "he needs to address the state bureaucrats who don't care about the people they serve."
"If I was advising him, I would say you suspend every single individual in that municipal water division (of the Department of Environmental Quality) and get to the very bottom of what happened," she said.
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press