The number of people claiming that the American governmental system is broken and that it is impossible to fix is growing. Anti-democratic rhetoric is now common. On Twitter, Face book and other social media, people routinely claim that our founders created a republic, not a democracy, while others express support for rolling back democratic election reforms. The growing support for an authoritarian type of government is reflected in a recent survey that reported the number of Americans who believe that it would be better to have a “strong leader” who does not have to bother with “elections” has now risen to thirty-two percent.
The idea that a third of Americans support an authoritarian government in place of our democratic system is shocking and not simply because the United States is the oldest modern democracy. What is astounding is the belief held by a substantial number of Americans that any authoritarian government, in the long run, is better or more efficient for its citizens then one that is democratic.
Authoritarian systems routinely fail their citizens. History is replete with examples like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but that failure can also be observed in the City of Flint.
In 2011, Governor Snyder signed a bill eliminating revenue sharing for local communities. The immediate result was that a number of Michigan’s poorer cities could not balance their budgets. One of these cities was Flint which immediately projected a $25 million deficit. That same year the Governor signed a law that gave him broad powers to appointed an emergency manager for these poorer communities including Flint. While not often characterized this way, the idea behind the law was that an emergency manager would be “strong leader” freed from democratic restraint, managing a city like a business and in that way fix its fiscal problems. As we all know, it did not work out that way.
In June 2012 Flint’s first emergency manager, Mike Brown, pushed to blend Flint River water with Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) water to save money. Fortunately, that request was rejected.
In November 2012 Brown’s replacement, Ed Kurtz asked state Treasurer Andy Dillon to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) due to rising costs of Detroit water. In April 2013 Dillon authorized it. On May 1, 2013, Kurtz announced that Flint water would be provide by the KWA. Neither the citizens of Flint nor their elected representatives had any real say in this decision.
The Darnell Earley Era
Darnell Earley, Kurtz’s replacement as emgernecy manager on March 7, 2014 sent a letter to the DWSD stating Flint would switch to the Flint River as the primary source of water beginning in April 2014.
Lead from aging water lines started appearing in Flint’s water supply shortly thereafter.
In children, lead causes impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty. It is associated with reduced fetal growth in pregnant women. In adults, lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves. There is no treatment for the adverse health effects of lead; conditions are permanent.
Complaints from Flint residents started almost immediately, but Earley, who had no elected responsibility to those citizens, could and did ignore them. He also ignored the protests that stared in January 2015 outside the Flint City Hall. He ignored the residents who turned out at a city forum, many complaining of rashes on their children. He would go on ignoring them until he left that year. It was his job to make the budget balance, not to represent or tend to the welfare of the people of Flint.
So what finally forced a change in Flint’s water? Democracy. Those voices who were being ignored in Flint started to be heard in Lansing. The democratic pressure reached Governor Snyder’s Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore:
“After all, if GM refuses to use the water in their plant and our own agencies are warning people not to drink it… we look pretty stupid hiding behind some financial statement.”
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Communications Director Brad Wurfel wrote to two of the governor’s top aids and said,
“(A)rea ministers put a shot over the bow last night… with a call for Snyder to declare state of emergency there and somehow ‘fix’ the water situation”.
In Late March 2015 the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to end Flint River service and return to Detroit water service even as the new emergency manager Jerry Ambrose declared the vote “incomprehensible” and ignored it.
After the ACLU’s Curt Guyette’s ground breaking article about lead levels in Flint’s drinking water in July 2015, ,Wurfel sent another email to other Synder administration officials stating:
“Guys, the Flint Ministers met with the Governor’s office again last week. They also brought along some folks from the community – a college prof and GM engineer – who imparted that 80 water tests in Flint have shown high lead level”.
Over the summer and into the early fall the democratic pressure grew so intense that finally in October 2015 Governor Snyder announced that he believed there was a problem with Flint’s water and took initial steps to reverse his emergency manager’s decision.
A free press and citizens pressuring elected officials stopped the use of Flint River water. If it had been left up to an emergency manager the people of Flint would still be using poisoned water to this day.
Democracy is all that protects us from being poisoned by a “strong leader”.
A shorter version of this story was first published in Deadline Detroit. Reprinted with permission.