Emergency Manager System Comes Under Fire After Flint Water Disaster

March 24, 2016, 1:53 AM UTC
Photograph by Bill Clark—CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

A Michigan-appointed task force has completed its report on the Flint water crisis, and the authors didn’t hold back, calling the crisis a culmination of “government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.”

While the task force laid blame at the feet of several actors, from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, to the Genesee County Health Department, it specifically highlighted the Emergency Manager Law that gives state-appointed officials control of distressed cities as a central factor that allowed the crisis to spiral out of control. The task force’s call for a reassessment of the controversial law—one that has been a defining point of Snyder’s tenure as governor of Michigan—joins a growing chorus of critics demanding checks on the power of emergency managers.

When Flint decided to disconnect from its longtime Detroit water system and draw from the Flint River that would ultimately corrode the city’s lead pipes, the city’s mayor was not making decisions. Rather, it was Snyder-appointed emergency manager Ed Kurtz who made the budget-minded call. The two emergency managers who succeeded Kurtz refused to reverse the decision even as complaints about the water quality increased.

Flint was placed under emergency management in 2011, just after Snyder signed into law Public Act 4, which vastly expanded the power of emergency financial managers. Under the controversial law—which took new life as Public Act 436 a month after voters repealed it in 2012—state-appointed officials have the power to break collective bargaining agreements, fire elected officials, and privatize or sell public assets. Since 2011, Michigan has placed seven cities or school districts, including Flint, under this kind of emergency management.

“Regardless of any successes of the EM process in other Michigan cities,” the task force’s report stated, “this failure [the Flint water crisis] must force us to review the EM law and the general approach to financial problems. Government approaches to cities in fiscal distress must balance fiscal responsibility with the equally important need to address quality of life, economic development, and infrastructure maintenance and provision.”

Emergency management has come under increasing fire in the wake of the Flint water crisis. Last week, Michigan congressman John Conyers, backed by more than 30 co-sponsors, introduced a bill that would limit the power of emergency managers across the country. The Emergency Financial Manager Reform Act of 2016 would withhold certain federal funds to states where emergency managers don’t protect cities against abuses like harm to public safety or discriminatory effects on voting rights. “We cannot undo the damage already done by the lead-poisoned water in Flint or fix the harm already caused by the hazardous conditions in Detroit’s public schools,” Conyers said in a statement. “But we can stand together and make sure the unaccountable emergency managers responsible for these disasters – and the legal system that empowered them – are not permitted to inflict further harm on our citizens or our constitutional rights.”

Also last week, during a U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform hearing, representatives lambasted Snyder over Michigan’s emergency manager law, calling Flint’s management under Snyder’s watch a “failure of a philosophy of governance” in which emergency managers “gambled with the health and welfare” of the city. Though Snyder defended the practice during the hearing, he conceded that it was a “fair conclusion” to say that Flint’s crisis was the result of a failure in emergency management. “In this instance … you wish they would have asked more questions,” he said.

But the governor is loathe to axe Public Act 436, which helped to usher in one of his tenure’s crowning achievements—guiding Detroit out of bankruptcy in a mere 17 months. Former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s ability to break labor contracts and sell off public assets gave him unprecedented power to map out the city’s future.

“Generally, the emergency manager law has worked. Look at Detroit in particular,” Snyder told reporters on Friday. “If people want to talk about [making changes to the law] in the future, not abolishing the law, but if there are improvements that can be made, I’m always open-minded to that.”

Governor Snyder’s office declined to comment on Conyers’ proposed legislation.

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