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Fixing what caused Flint

Jack Lessenberry

For almost eight months, the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Crisis has been meeting, taking testimony, and struggling to find solutions.

Two days ago, they released a major report aimed at preventing further disasters. Unfortunately, they did this the day of the final presidential debate, which meant it got less than full attention. 

Today, in fact, might have been more appropriate; it was exactly a year ago that the governor, finally conceding that there was a problem, created the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, whose findings eventually led to the forced resignation of the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and a whole chain of events that has led to criminal charges, political upheaval, and Flint becoming a nationally known environmental disaster.

I’ve read a lot of boring official government reports. Not this one.

In 34 pages, it provides a precise and remarkable timeline of the crisis, and lists more than 30 proposals, almost half of which are goals that could be enacted almost immediately.

Soon after the report was revealed, my colleague Rick Pluta, Michigan Radio’s Lansing bureau chief, noted something unusual.

The report was issued by the office of Senator Jim Stamas, R-Midland, the committee chair, who alone signed it. There was neither a major media event to discuss its findings, nor a minority report from those who disagreed.

Pluta and I both found that somewhat remarkable, given that these days Republicans and Democrats in Lansing seldom agree on whether the sky is blue.

So yesterday, I discussed this with Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, the Flint Democrat who was also vice-chair of the water emergency committee. He told me that, indeed, he didn’t agree with everything in this report – but then, neither did the Republicans.

“I had sort of a unique status as the only member who was from Flint,” he noted.

He still lives in the city with his wife and their 15-month old son, and feels strongly this was not a time for political posturing, but for achievable results.

Ananich told me that he was pleased -- and I think mildly surprised --at the Republicans’ willingness to work with the Democrats on some key issues.

When I asked Ananich what he liked best about the recommendations, he said the proposal to establish higher safety standards for lead and copper. The recommendations he likes least were those that would make it easier to punish and possibly scapegoat civil service employees, something he thinks unlikely to be enacted.

We know this won't be our last urban environmental crisis. We need to make sure it remains our worst.

The reform that has drawn the most attention is the one suggesting the Legislature consider replacing the current emergency manager law with one that would substitute a three person team in such situations, one that would include not only a financial bean-counter but a local government operations expert and an ombudsman representing the people.

This may need tweaking, but makes a great deal of sense. What we don’t know yet is what the governor thinks, or what the lawmakers will be willing to do either now or when they return for the so-called lame-duck session after the election.

What they need to do is to take these suggestions seriously. We know this won’t be our last urban environmental crisis. We need to make sure it remains our worst.

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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