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Flint situation worse than you think, and clouding out other issues too

Jack Lessenberry

No matter how bad you might have thought the state messed up Flint, the reality is worse. Yesterday, a flood of revelations made that shockingly clear.

Ten months ago, a consultant for the city recommended adding corrosion control chemicals to the water, because it was causing metal to leach out of the pipes. Apparently the governor, who is setting a new standard for clueless, never saw it, and Jerry Ambrose, then one of Flint’s revolving door emergency managers, ignored it.

Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley reports today that State Representative Sheldon Neely of Flint sent a lengthy email to the governor a year ago, saying his city was in danger of civil unrest because of not having clean drinking water. Naturally, Governor Rick Snyder never saw that either. One of his press secretaries did, however.

The columnist reported Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said he remembered the letter and laughed, since Neely sent it to an e-mail address meant for regular people to use, not the one for people with power, who might actually get taken seriously.

Today, the question is whether anyone will take Rick Snyder seriously, ever again. The picture that continues to emerge is one of a governor reenacting Peter Sellers’ role of the spacey and clueless Chauncey Gardiner in the movie Being There.

Two nights ago, Snyder agreed to appear on the CBS evening news to discuss the situation in Flint. But when the anchor asked him what the most recent water tests in Flint show, the governor didn’t have a clue. He was however, sorry about things.

Small wonder that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday announced that it was taking over lead sampling in Flint. They essentially said the state was incompetent and couldn’t be trusted.

“There continues to be inadequate transparency and accountability,” the agency head said in a letter to Snyder.

This crisis is going to dominate the news for some time to come. But here’s what’s bad about that. Certainly it is about time that Michigan and the nation paid attention to the agony of Flint. But the horror is so powerful it is blotting out other news.

Detroit’s Public Schools are in their worst crisis ever. They owe more than half a billion dollars and are going to totally run out of cash in about three months. The overworked, harassed and underpaid teachers have been staging wildcat strikes to try and draw attention to the deplorable condition of their buildings, which have rats and inadequate heat.

But all anyone is paying attention to is Flint. Governor Snyder had a plan to try and save Detroit’s schools. But the legislature has no incentive to go along with anything he wants now. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof is instead trying to punish the teachers’ union.

The schools are likely to careen into bankruptcy, which will carry a far higher cost. Conservative Detroit News business columnist Daniel Howes said it best today:

“paying fewer taxpayer dollars now to avoid much larger liabilities later can be a wise, responsible use of public money — unless the people in charge prove too thick, too blind or too insensitive to see it.”

Our leaders have shown they are all those things. I suggest we brace ourselves.

This will be a most interesting and difficult year.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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