Did Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law Cause the Flint Water Crisis?

Flint Water
Flint residents line up for free bottled water as activists protest outside of City Hall to protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's handling of the water crisis Friday, Jan. 8, 2016 in Flint. Mich. (Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP) LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
Photograph by Jake May AP

In a new editorial for The Nation, Michigan Congressman John Conyers lays the blame for Flint’s ongoing water crisis squarely on the state’s Emergency Manager law, Public Act 436, which he describes as “a vehicle for corporate privatization,” conflicts of interest, and corruption.

Conyers, a Democrat and currently the longest-serving member of the House, writes that Republican Governor Rick Snyder “chose to ignore” multiple warning signs of the law’s shortcomings after he and the Republican-controlled state Senate expanded an existing Emergency Manager law in 2011.

States taking over local authority in a crisis is nothing new. The list of cities that have been taken over by emergency financial managers includes Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and, most famously, New York City during the 1970s.

But, as Conyers points out, Michigan is different. Most emergency city managers gain control only over spending, but after Snyder’s expansion of the law, those in Michigan gained nearly total control over a wide variety of city functions. In Flint, that included the fateful decision to switch the city’s water supply to the Flint River. But this wasn’t an isolated incident—in Pontiac, Michigan, an emergency manager made a similarly troubling choice to outsource water services.

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With emergency managers only accountable to the governor, and not to voters, Conyers argues the law is fundamentally antidemocratic, citing findings that voter turnout has dropped dramatically in some cities under emergency management. In 2013, about half of Michigan’s African-American population lived in a city under emergency management, compared to about 2% of white residents. A coalition in Michigan brought suit that year to challenge the law, and a judge in 2014 upheld the argument that it could be and had been applied in a racially discriminatory manner.

But the same ruling rejected several other claims made in the suit, confirming that in general states have the power to delegate or take away local authority as they see fit. Despite Conyers’ concerns, it’s also unclear whether the emergency manager procedure would have changed the specific outcome in Flint—as then-Mayor Dayne Walling supported the water switch at the time and deflected inquiries later. And as CityLab has pointed out, it’s not so rare for local governments—those not under emergency control—to skirt compliance with federal guidelines.

For more on the Flint water crisis, watch:

The deeper problem facing cities like Flint ultimately isn’t whether appointed or elected officials are making decisions about things like water management. That decision was ultimately motivated by the city’s overall dire situation. Deindustrialization, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure are common threads from Indianapolis to El Paso to Fresno, and a rising chorus of voices is calling Flint a “canary in the coal mine” for the broader, ongoing failure of basic services in America’s most troubled cities. While elected officials may in theory be more responsive to those systemic hardships, they haven’t found the silver bullet yet.

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