DALLAS — Michigan’s emergency manager system for financially distressed local governments came under fire from a task force the state governor appointed to investigate the Flint water contamination crisis.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality also took blame, though the task force’s report found the buck stopped with Gov. Rick Snyder.
“The role of the emergency managers in Flint (in combination with MDEQ’s failures) places primary accountability for what happened with state government,” said the Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s report, released Wednesday. “Ultimate accountability for Michigan executive branch decisions rests with the governor.”
Michigan’s emergency manager program, in which the state governor appoints a manger with extensive powers over a troubled city or district, began in 1990, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report. It’s the state’s go-to method for dealing with local government financial trouble.
The report from the task force said the EM law hamstrung Flint as it attempted to manage its water supply.
The city, having reached the end of a contract with Detroit to supply treated water, began pulling water from the Flint River as a stopgap until a new regional authority finished a pipeline to deliver Lake Huron water.
The river water was improperly treated, creating lead contamination that could not be reversed by a later switch back to Detroit’s supply.
“The emergency manager structure made it extremely difficult for Flint citizens to alter or check decision-making on preparations for use of Flint River water, or to receive responses to concerns about subsequent water quality issues,” the report said.
The report, based on interviews with 63 individuals and the review of numerous public documents, identifies the parties involved, assigns accountability and suggests measures so that another crisis of Flint’s magnitude never happens again in Michigan.
It casts a harsh light on what the task force called a failing in the state’s emergency manager system, in which cost factors overrode other considerations.
The task force concluded that it was the state appointed EMs who ultimately made the decision to switch to the Flint River as the city’s primary water source, and then later delay the return to Detroit’s water system after contamination problems became evident.
The task force said Michigan’s emergency manager law needs to be reviewed to identify measures to compensate for the loss of the checks and balances that are provided by local elected government.
“Emergency managers charged with financial reform often do not have, nor are they supported by, the necessary expertise to manage non-financial aspects of municipal government,” the report said.
The state should “consider alternatives to the current emergency manager approach,” the report said.
The task force assigned primary responsibility for the water contamination to the MDEQ and blamed the state-run agency’s lack of timely analysis and understanding of its own data for ultimately prolonging the contamination crisis.
Snyder, who testified before a congressional committee on Flint’s water crisis on March 17, has blamed incorrect information on the water contamination provided by the state’s department of environmental protection and the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency as reasons behind his office’s slow action.
"The governor’s own hand-picked task force totally contradicts his testimony before Congress last week, placing responsibility for the Flint Water Crisis squarely with him, his Emergency Managers, and his administration,” said Brandon Dillon, Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party in a press release.
Snyder’s role in Flint’s water contamination crisis has prompted calls his resignation and recall efforts are underway.
In his fiscal 2017 budget, Snyder has requested an additional $195 million to help restore safe drinking water to Flint. The funding would come on top of $37 million already approved from a supplemental budget action, bringing total state funding for Flint to $232 million.