Flint Is a Casualty in the Right Wing's War on Local Democracy
How did an American city's water end up being poisoned with lead?
This month's hearing in Congress about the crisis in Flint, Michigan shed more heat than light on the decisions that poisoned the water more than 100,000 residents rely on to drink and bathe, including nearly 30,000 children and teens. Democrats focused their ire on Governor Rick Snyder, while Republicans predictably tried to deflect blame onto the Environmental Protection Agency as part of their long-standing campaign to eliminate the agency responsible for regulating polluters.
But two Members of Congress honed in on the real culprit in the debacle: Governor Snyder's "emergency manager" law that stripped Flint of any local democratic control and put its fate in the hands of unaccountable executives hand-picked by Snyder.
"Did that emergency management system fail under your leadership in this matter?" asked Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), demanding a yes or no response from Snyder.
"That would be a fair conclusion," Snyder eventually conceded.
"This is a failure of a philosophy of governance you advocated," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). "A city in America... is on its knees because of your emergency manager's decision to save $4 million. And now it's going to cost a lot more to clean up."
Is this really happening in the world's leading republic?
Funding the War on Local Democracy
Governor Snyder's controversial emergency manager law is a cornerstone of the right wing's war on labor and local democracy in Michigan, which has been orchestrated by a network of "think tanks" and committees backed by the billionaire DeVos family, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Kochs, and other conservative politicos.
Thanks to record spending by outside groups in 2010 and $6 million of Snyder's own fortune, the Republican Party in Michigan joined 11 other states in capturing the governor's mansion from the Democrats and flipped the Michigan House, giving the party a lock on political power for the first time since 2002.
The Republican Governors Association Michigan 2010 PAC dominated the playing field to become the "largest political action committee in the history of Michigan politics," according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Through an elaborate shell game, 98 percent of the $8.4 million raised and spent by the RGA MI 2010 PAC came from outside Michigan, while Michigan donors gave the national Republican Governors Association (RGA) $8.6 million, including $5.4 million from the state Chamber of Commerce.
The RGA MI 2010 PAC then contributed $5.3 million to the state Republican Party, and sent off $3 million to back Rick Perry's bid for a third term as governor of Texas, while the national RGA spent $3.6 million on sham issue ads attacking Snyder's Democratic opponent. Still with me?
All in all, the RGA raised and redistributed $114 million to PACs in at least 15 states, helping to elect a slate of right-wing governors, including Wisconsin's Scott Walker, who moved quickly to attack public sector unions.
Right-wing billionaires and their corporations played a big role in raising all that money. Records on Open Secrets show that the DeVos family, Amway, and its parent company, Alticor, pumped $1.9 million into the RGA's 2010 political operation.
David Koch personally gave $1 million, while his brother William chipped in $100,000 and Koch Industries another $50,000. The Kochs have since become RGA's #1 source of cash, bankrolling the RGA to the tune of $5.3 million during the 2014 election cycle.
Paul Singer also ponied up $1.4 million. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave a million that year, and News America, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. that owns the pro-Republican outlet Fox News, sprung another $1.3 million.
DeVos Dynasty Targets Michigan
Although Snyder—a business executive and venture capitalist—campaigned as a moderate Republican who promised to run the state like a business and create jobs, the deep pockets driving the Republican surge had more ambitious ideas.
Their goals: break the unions, scrap public sector labor contracts, and privatize government services.
Dick DeVos, son of billionaire businessman and Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, took a first crack at this agenda when he spent $35 million of the family fortune to run for governor in 2006. He lost badly, but he didn't let up.
In 2009, DeVos helped his close ally, Ron Weiser, get elected as chair of the Michigan Republican Party, where he was able to coordinate the party's 2010 landslide victory. By 2014, political observers were calling the DeVos family Michigan's "most potent interest group," and their spending on in-state candidates and political committees had increased to $4.9 million.
After Snyder's election, DeVos-backed groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy were poised to help move his legislative agenda forward.
Launched in 1987, the Mackinac Center is one of the nation's largest state-based, right-wing pressure groups promoting "free market," pro-business policies. It is an active member of the State Policy Network (SPN) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), two important cogs in the Koch machine.
Mackinac has long been one of the key groups leading the Michigan charge for the big ticket items on DeVos' right-wing wish list, including breaking the back of organized labor.
Ronald Reagan may have once said, "[w]here free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost," but that's just crazy-liberal talk as far as the Mackinac Center is concerned.
As a Mackinac staffer told a state legislator in 2011: "Our goal is [to] outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan."
Mackinac's activities have been fueled by DeVos as well as money from the Koch network of billionaires. Between 2010 and 2012, the Mackinac Center received $1.5 million from the DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, preferred investment vehicles of the Koch donor network, and four DeVos foundations kicked in another $560,000 between 1998 and 2011.
However, those totals public do not reveal how much billionaire cash Mackinac has received through checks from personal trust accounts or from corporations, which are not publicly reported.
Mackinac at the Root of Sweeping Emergency Manager Powers
Once sworn in, Snyder wasted no time in making one of the most audacious power grabs in the country.
On March 16, 2011, while thousands protested outside, he signed Public Act 4 into law, giving him the ability to take near-total control over financially struggling municipalities through appointed "emergency managers."
Few could have been more pleased than the DeVos family and their confederates at the Mackinac Center.
The provision for emergency financial managers dates back to a 1988 Michigan law, but those managers wielded limited power.
Mackinac's Louis Schimmel called for loosening limits and expanding managers' powers as early as 2005, and the group reprinted his article in January 2011. They argued that: "The state's policy prescription for fiscally floundering cities should be to appoint far more powerful emergency financial managers than they have in the past."
Mackinac pressed for sweeping authority for emergency managers to assume the powers of elected city councils and mayors, break union contracts, and revise municipal charters, while getting legal immunity from any liability for the results of their actions.
Snyder's emergency manager law included all four of those changes, and the Mackinac bunch patted themselves on the back while singing the law's praises.
Concerned citizens and critics, however, denounced it as "financial martial law."
Other cities around the country have had emergency managers, including New York City in the 1970s, but their powers were limited to financial matters.
The Snyder-Mackinac approach to the law was dramatically, exponentially different. It gave unelected and unaccountable managers chosen by the governor near total control over all city decisions—including things like where a city gets its water.
Snyder's First Emergency "Tyrant"? A Mackinac Guy
Snyder chose the architect of the expanded emergency powers—Mackinac's Louis Schimmel—to be the first person he appointed as an emergency manager, installing him as the potentate for Pontiac, Schimmel's home town.
Within months, Schimmel had fired key city officials and privatized the entire public works department. The Pontiac City Council still held their weekly meetings, packed with angry citizens, but they had no authority to make any decisions.
When asked by a local radio station if the emergency manager law made him a dictator, Schimmel replied: "I guess I'm the tyrant in Pontiac then, if that's the way it is."
Schimmel didn't get any argument from state court judge Rae Lee Chabot, who reversed the manager's action to cut Pontiac's pension board in half, a decision that ignored the legal requirements of Michigan's Open Meetings Act.
"[I]t looks like a dictatorship," Chabot said.
State-Controlled Pontiac Outsources Water to Indicted Corporation
Shortly before Schimmel took control of Pontiac using the law he helped create, his predecessor as emergency manager of Pontiac, Michael Stampfler, flexed his muscles under Snyder's new law and outsourced the city's water treatment to United Water Services.
Watchdog Chris Savage broke the story on Eclectablog.
"This is big news," he wrote, because the giant for-profit water company had just been indicted by a federal grand jury in 2010 on 26 felony counts of conspiracy and Clean Water Act violations for its mishandling of water services in Gary, Indiana. (The company's workers have since been acquitted of criminal charges in the Gary case, but United Water paid $645,000 in civil fines under a consent agreement in 2014.)
Schimmel completed the outsourcing process in November 2011 by firing key public works employees and turning full control over to United Water.
Before long, consumer complaints over water quality, outages, and sewer backups started piling up. It took nearly three years before Oakland County, where Pontiac is situated, announced that it was taking over operations.
All the warning signs were there for Flint.
Savage summed up the problem well:
"Emergency Financial Managers are generally good at what they do. They are typically trained as accountants and business optimizers. They know how to trim and cut and lean out organizations to squeeze every last drop of profits out of them. Unfortunately for the residents of Michigan, things like parks, public safety and the protection of natural resources don't produce profits and generally are presented as ‘costs'…When we begin to put a price tag on the very things that make our cities, society and state good, safe, livable and lovable, while putting CPA-like EFMs in charge, you can expect that these things will suffer in order to save money, even if it puts our citizens at risk."
Democracy? What Democracy?
Citizens and public employees in Michigan were not having it.
Following extensive protests, opponents sprang into action and quickly gathered more than 200,000 signatures to qualify a voter initiative, Proposal 1, for the November 2012 ballot to repeal Snyder's expanded emergency manager law.
Stand Up for Democracy, the ballot committee backing Proposal 1, received 91 percent of its funding from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Michigan Council 25, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Opposition to Proposal 1 was led by Bob LaBrant, Senior Counsel at the Sterling Corporation, a leading Republican PR firm, and the former director of political and legal campaigns at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce for 34 years. LaBrant's ballot committee, called Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, focused its strategy on a court fight to bump Proposal 1 off the ballot. That effort ultimately failed, and the group spent little on campaigning against the measure.
On November 6, 2012, 53 percent of Michigan's voters cast ballots to repeal Snyder's emergency manager law. But that didn't stop Governor Snyder and his backers.
Barely one month later, Snyder pushed a slightly revised bill through the lame duck legislature and restored the sweeping powers of his emergency managers.
Only this time, he added an appropriation which, under Michigan law, prevents it from being subject to referendum. Check and mate.
Kevyn Orr, who later became emergency manager for Detroit, sent an email to the Detroit Free Press saying, "Michigan's EM law is a clear end-around the prior initiative that was rejected by the voters in November. ...[A]though the new law provides the thin veneer of a revision it is essentially a redo of the prior rejected law."
The new law did contain what critics call a "choose your poison" provision, allowing municipalities to choose between an emergency manager, bankruptcy, arbitration, or a consent agreement.
Not on the table for cash-strapped cities reeling from the collapse of the auto industry and the impact of free trade agreements: any state largesse like the 86 percent corporate income tax cut that Snyder handed Michigan businesses in 2011, worth an estimated $1.7 billion per year.
The resurrection of Snyder's emergency manager law wasn't even the most dramatic thing to happen in the 2012 lame duck session.
According to Mother Jones, DeVos and his close allies—who led a $23.2 million campaign to defeat another voter initiative, Proposal 2, aimed at enshrining collective bargaining in the state constitution—had devised a plan to ram through "right-to-work" legislation before anyone knew what hit them.
They pitched the plan to legislative leaders and a Snyder aide on November 20, and by early December unleashed an ad campaign using a new group, the Michigan Freedom Fund, closely tied to Dick DeVos.
Snyder surprised the public by calling the measure to a vote on December 6, and five days later the birthplace of modern industrial unions became a "right-to-work" state.
The following May, at the State Policy Network's annual meeting in Oklahoma City, Dick DeVos and the Mackinac Center were recognized for their leadership in the legislative fight to win passage of the "right-to-work" law in Michigan. As reported by PR Watch, Dick's wife Betsy DeVos personally presented SPN's highest award to Mackinac's president, Joseph Lehman.
Mackinac's blog noted that it had been pushing for "right-to-work" since 1990 and had posted more than 500 "articles, blog posts, special essays and news [clips] generated by Mackinac Center analysts" backing the legislation.
The victory didn't come cheap.
The big players of Michigan's right wing had spent millions to defeat Proposal 2, an attempt to protect union rights in the state.
That funding included $9.2 million from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, $5.5 million from the Michigan Alliance for Business Growth, $2 million from the DeVos family, and $2 million from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.
The Michigan Freedom Fund spent another $1 million on the post-election ad campaign leading up to legislature's adoption of the "right-to-work" law.
The Mackinac Center had an annual budget of $4.4 million as of 2012. Aside from checks to groups that do not disclose their major donors, the DeVos family spent more than $44 million in publicly reported funding on the Republican Party, party committees, and candidates in Michigan between 1997 and 2013.
Expanded Emergency Management Comes to Flint
Plagued by the loss of 90 percent of its industrial workforce, disinvestment, and depopulation, Flint was facing a severe financial crisis by the time Governor Snyder took office.
Since then, Snyder has appointed four emergency managers to seize control of the city's assets and run Flint's local affairs.
Flint voters elected a new mayor on November 8, 2011, but a state review panel declared a "local government financial emergency" the same day, and Snyder had installed his first emergency manager, Michael Brown, by December 1.
The next day, Brown dismissed more than half a dozen key city administrators and Flint's elected officials had their pay and benefits removed.
In January 2012, angry Flint residents joined a protest near Governor Snyder's home. AFSCME filed suit and managed to get a restraining order on Brown, but Brown was back by April in time to unveil his budget, which included cuts in nearly every department and a tax hike.
Jack McHugh at Mackinac claimed in a March 2012 column that municipal budget problems were a "cancerous fiscal malpractice," and he argued that Snyder's emergency manager expansion provided the "rigorous 'chemotherapy'" needed "to sustain the necessary functions of tapped-out school districts and local governments."
In Flint's case, the cure turned out to be worse than the disease.
Frustrated with expensive water service from Detroit and frequent rate increases, Flint and surrounding Genesee County had joined nearby cities in 2010 to form the new Karegnondi Water Authority. The plan was to obtain water directly from Lake Huron once a new pipeline was complete. (That is now projected to be June 2016.)
The Flint City Council voted for the new water source in March 2013, albeit symbolically as it had no power, and the emergency manager and state treasurer approved a plan to switch water supplies a few weeks later.
That's when the trouble started.
"Flint Residents Can Taste History"
In April 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) notified Flint that its contract would be up in a year and offered to negotiate a short-term contract while the city waited for the new pipeline.
However, Flint's second emergency manager, Ed Kurtz, hired a private engineering firm to develop a plan to switch to the polluted Flint River for the interim period instead, in order to save money.
Come March 2014, Darnell Earley, now Snyder's third emergency manager for Flint, wrote to DWSD that "there will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water to serve its residents and businesses after April 17, 2014," despite DWSD's renewed offers. Why Earley couldn't work out an agreement with DWSD remains a mystery, as Detroit was also under the complete control of another emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.
Governor Snyder's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) gave its blessing to the change on April 9. The changeover was expected to save Flint $5 million over two years.
On April 25, 2014, Flint officially made the fateful switch to the Flint River for its water in a ceremony attended by local and state officials. "This is indeed the best choice for the city of Flint going forward," Emergency Manager Earley said.
"It will take two days before Flint residents can taste history," reported the press, M-Live.com.
Flint's otherwise powerless mayor pressed the button to switch the water feed, and officials raised glasses of treated water in a toast.
Unfortunately, Flint residents tasted history pretty quickly.
Complaints started flooding in about the water's taste, smell, and color by June, and people said it was making them sick. Residents endured two "boil" advisories due to high coliform bacteria levels and faced unsafe levels of a carcinogenic chlorine byproduct before the University of Michigan-Flint was the first to find high lead levels in its water on January 9, 2015.
Flint's City Council voted to return to Detroit water in March 2015, but Emergency Manager Earley said no. In fact, a $7 million emergency loan from Governor Snyder's state government in April 2015 was conditioned on Flint not rejoining the DTWS.
Even as the findings of lead contamination piled up over the ensuing months, the state insisted there was no problem.
The Rachel Maddow Show and Amy Goodman's Democracy Now were the only two major national television news outlets to sound the alarm and persistently cover the disaster unfolding in Flint, while Snyder and others said there was no story, no crisis to tell—despite the pleas from Flint residents.
It took more than nine months after the state university found high lead in the water before Governor Snyder finally conceded, on September 30, 2015, that "mistakes were made."
The next day, Genesee County declared a public health emergency for Flint.
Emails since released by the governor's office show that "nearly every person in the governor's inner circle was aware of alarming concerns about the city's water" as early as October 2014. And a task force appointed by Snyder found that individuals and scientists who sounded the alarm about Flint's water were met with "aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit [their] efforts."
A week later, Governor Snyder announced that Flint would switch back to Detroit water at a cost of $12 million. But by then the damage was done.
The children of Flint face permanent damage.
And, after a closed-door meeting with Snyder, Flint's mayor said that the cost of replacing pipes corroded by Flint River water could reach $1.5 billion.
Poisoned by Hubris
Flint's water disaster serves as an urgent warning of the dangers communities face when they lose their democracy.
Flint's City Council never voted to use the Flint River while it waited for the Karegnondi pipeline to be completed. That decision was made by Snyder's hand-picked managers with the power to override all elected officials, local contracts, and even the city's charter, with no way for local citizens to hold them accountable.
Howard Croft, former director of Flint's public works, told the ACLU of Michigan that the decision to use the Flint River "went up through the state...all the way to the governor's office."
The decision to use Flint River, in turn, was signed off on by Snyder's pick for director of the DEQ, Dan Wyant, who had helped business owners grow their companies and had managed the Department of Agriculture, but who had zero environmental experience.
Wyant resigned in December 2015 after a state task force blamed DEQ for failing to ensure that Flint residents had safe drinking water.
What happened to the other communities in the same position as Flint but living under actual local democracies?
Flint Township and Genesee County are also leaving Detroit water for the new Karegnondi pipeline, but they negotiated interim contracts with the DTWS and kept clean water for their residents.
Only the powerless residents of Flint were poisoned.
The racial implications of Snyder's emergency manager law and the Flint scandal are hard to overlook.
While Snyder's law is neutral on its face, it has had a dramatically disparate impact on blacks.
By 2013, half of Michigan's black population had been placed under emergency managers or consent agreements, and no longer had any meaningful right to vote or redress their grievances at the local level.
Only 2 percent of white Michigan residents were subjected to rule by emergency managers.
Flint has a majority black population, while the rest of Genesee County is majority white and considerably wealthier.
When the mostly white communities of Handy Township and Livingston County experienced a financial crisis, their Republican state representatives went to bat for them and fought for a state bailout. State Rep. Cindy Denby (who is white) was quoted as saying the emergency manager law was "not intended for places like Livingston County."
One of the top black elected officials in the state, U.S. Congressman John Conyers, asked the Justice Department to review the emergency manager law for violation of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
A coalition of civil rights groups also filed a federal lawsuit, Phillips v. Snyder, arguing that the law violates multiple state and federal constitutional rights.
In December 2014, U.S. District Court Judge George Caram Steeh ruled that part of the case can move forward on the grounds that the emergency manager law disproportionately impacts African Americans, saying that the law gives "enormous discretion to state decision makers and creates a significant potential for discriminatory decisions." The plaintiffs have filed an appeal to the 6th Circuit challenging the judge's decision to dismiss the rest of their constitutional claims.
It's Not Just Flint
The same emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who mishandled Flint's water situation went on to become Snyder's pick as emergency manager for Detroit's school system in January 2015. The results have been pretty comparable.
Darnell's tenure has been marked by widespread news reports of deteriorating and unhealthy conditions in the schools, including leaking roofs, mold, broken windows, and bullet holes in classroom walls. Detroit teacher protested those conditions with a series of "sickouts" in January 2016.
After earning a $221,000 salary for his appointment to oversee Detroit's schools, Earley resigned his Detroit position under fire in February. But he walked away with an $83,000 consulting contract and signed an agreement holding the Snyder Administration harmless from any claims relating to his actions as emergency manager. One school board member called it "hush money."
Critics point out that, after 16 years of state control, the Detroit school system is in much worse shape now than it was before, with a significantly larger deficit.
That's interesting, given that when an earlier emergency manager for the school system, Roy Roberts, resigned in 2013, he said his initial instructions were to "blow up the district and dismantle it," but that he spent the first few months on the job convincing state officials it was worth saving.
The International Business Times recently reported that the Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating Snyder administration officials for alleged corruption—receiving bribes from contractors—in the Education Achievement Authority and Detroit Public Schools agencies created by Snyder.
Even some early supporters of Snyder's law have had a change of heart.
Former emergency financial manager Michael Stampfler, the guy who outsourced Pontiac's water, eventually concluded that Snyder's expanded emergency manager (EM) law doesn't work:
"I do not believe EMs can be successful—they abrogate the civic structure of the community for a period of years then return it virtually dismantled for the community to attempt to somehow make a go of it. The program provides no structure for long term recovery, and that is why most communities slide back into trouble, if they experience any relief at all—a vicious cycle. The Public Act is not sufficient and the state bureaucracy isn't up to a performance offering any significant success—as can be noted from the communities repeating."
Snyder's law is not just anti-democratic, it is producing poor results.
Michigan residents were promised increased efficiency from "running government like a business" and an end to corruption. The emergency manager law has failed on both counts.
"We still have incredibly bad decisions being made," says Chris Savage, one of Snyder's most vocal critics. "[A]nd we very clearly still have corruption and criminal activity going on."
"The emergency manager law is just one in a long line of failed government experiments imposed on the people of Michigan," said Senator David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights). "Cities and schools are left in worse shape than they were before the emergency managers came to town, and now taxpayers are left footing the bill for Earley's payout. For shame."
Mackinac Remains Unapologetic
The Flint debacle and troubles in Detroit and Pontiac haven't fazed anyone back at the Mackinac Center, the special interest pressure group that scripted Snyder's emergency manager law.
Despite its deep involvement in pushing for "enhanced" powers for managers, Mackinac has declined to admit even the possibility that the policies it pushed for played any role in the Flint water crisis.
Without a hint of irony, Mackinac's Michigan Capitol Confidential recently posted an article lauding the ACLU and Michigan Radio for their work exposing how Michigan state officials attempted to ignore or cover up Flint's water crisis, folding Flint's problems into Mackinac's constant narrative of supposed government incompetence and corruption.
But perhaps worst of all, Mackinac's spin could be seen as discouraging people from looking at the root causes of the Flint crisis. "Which Is Better: Finding Fault or Providing Help?," asked communications director Dan Armstrong in a December blog post, as if the two were mutually incompatible. Armstrong's article didn't even mention emergency managers.
Snyder to Local Democracy: Drop Dead
Snyder's emergency manager law stands as a testament the corporate right's disrespect for local democracy, both in terms of how it strips away all local democratic powers of self governance, and because the voters of Michigan went to the polls and voted it down, only to have Snyder bring it right back. It embodies the idea that a state "CEO" knows better than the people what works best for their communities.
A task force appointed by Snyder released its report on March 23, 2016, concluding that the emergency manager law contributed to the Flint crisis by removing the checks and balances at the heart of American democracy, and calling for a review of the law and a search for alternatives.
But the emergency manager law wasn't the right's last shot at local democracy in Michigan. In June 2015, Snyder signed into law legislation barring municipalities from passing ordinances to improve the lives of workers by raising the minimum wage or requiring family leave.
Such "preemption" laws are an increasingly popular tool being promoted by ALEC and other Koch-funded organizations, and something the Mackinac Center had lobbied for as far back as 2003.
In January 2016, Snyder signed another bill into law prohibiting local governments from providing voters with factual information about ballot measures, including local tax increases. Republican legislators had crammed that (and many other) provisions into a non-controversial campaign finance measure without notice or public hearing, and sent it to Snyder's desk.
DeVos' Michigan Freedom Fund praised Snyder for signing the bill.
Governor Snyder may have conceded to Congress that his dictatorial emergency manager law failed the people of Flint, but he continues to push a right-wing "philosophy of governance," as Rep. Connolly put it, that is profoundly undemocratic.
Snyder says he wants to run government like a business, but a corporation is not a democracy and, at this rate, Michigan may not be one much longer either.
CMD's Jessica Mason, Sari Williams, and Lisa Graves contributed to this article.