Many national media reports would have you believe that the crisis began in April 2014, when the city started drawing its water from the Flint River. They'd also have you believe that the crisis was the fault of the locally elected officials who made a catastrophic decision, not to mention city residents who did not hold their leaders accountable.
The stage was set on March 16, 2011, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 4. This measure broadened an earlier law that provided an "emergency financial manager" for financially distressed cities and school districts. Under the new law, "emergency financial managers" became "emergency managers" with the power to cancel or renegotiate city contracts, liquidate assets, suspend local government, unilaterally draft policy, and even disincorporate. (It is worth noting that Michigan emergency managers have done all of these things except disincorporate, which was entertained by a manager in the city of Pontiac.)
The need for an emergency manager was determined by a series of highly subjective criteria. Almost every city that got one was a poor, African-American-majority city devastated by a shrinking industrial sector: Flint, Pontiac, Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor, and so on.
Flint was one of the first cities to be assigned an emergency manager in 2011, and over the course of four years had four such managers. One of the first manager's first acts was to suspend local government, and this remained essentially in force until the departure of the last emergency manager in 2015. Even today, Flint is under the scrutiny of a "transition advisory board" that has veto power over any local decision, and that has frequently overstepped its professed limited mandate to assure fiscal restraint.
Many Michiganders found Public Act 4 to be a violation of a strong state tradition of "home rule," and so overturned it by referendum in the 2012 election. But that didn't last long: the Republican-dominated state legislature immediately passed Public Act 436, which was almost identical, although it included a provision to pay the emergency managers from state coffers rather than local. Under Michigan law, a bill that includes an appropriation like this cannot be voided through referendum.
Some emergency managers, true, delegated limited responsibilities to the mayor or to members of the city council, but they always retained (and used) their powers to void any decision with which they disagreed. This is the key point that early coverage by flagship newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post neglected to mention: From 2011 to 2015, Flint officials had noreal control over municipal policy.
For example, a Newsweek article from October 2015 was titled "Flint: The Cheapskate City That Poisoned Its Children."
A New York Times article reports that "Flint's mayor, Dayne Walling ... had attended a 2014 event to celebrate the switch to the new water supply," without mentioning that the emergency manager who had actually signed on for the switch was also present at that event.
A Washington Post article from last December doesn't even utter the words "emergency Manager."
It's those two words — "emergency manager" — that differentiate Flint from all but a handful of cities around the country, and which made it particularly vulnerable to the kind of reckless oversight that led to our contaminated water.
Chris Savage and our good friends over at Eclectablog have been covering Michigan politics and Gov. Snyder's emergency manager disaster for years, so if you want to learn more about how Flint happened, it's a great place to start.
But let's understand that in the end, Gov. Snyder did this by putting an unelected and unaccountable emergency manager in place in Flint who chose to do this.
Still wondering who made the call to switch to Flint River water? Here is the key document, signed by the Gov's EM. pic.twitter.com/QHLMELNR9B— Jeff Irwin (@JeffMIrwin) January 20, 2016