Thousands of citizens have been poisoned by lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., and children in particular may have suffered permanent, irreversible brain damage as a result. Last week, a special investigatory task force appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder concluded that Michigan officials bear primary blame for that tragedy.
“It was a mixture of ignorance, incompetence and arrogance by many decision-makers that created a toxic and tragic situation that produced the Flint water crisis,” task force co-chair Chris Kolb said in releasing the final report.
Given that states are supposed to be the laboratories of democracy, the lessons of the Flint tragedy ought to be studied here in Georgia as well, because they have a lot to teach us.
In general, the panel found the problem was caused by a failure to invest in public infrastructure and a decision to prioritize cost-cutting over public health, compounded by incompetence and bureaucratic callousness. State agencies were more interested in finding ways to get around state and federal law than they were in enforcing those laws to protect their citizens, in part because they had been stripped of the resources to act aggressively.
The report also documents the failings of the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration. The EPA did not cause Flint’s problems, investigators found, but it did fail to intervene aggressively when state agencies failed to do their job. Wary of being accused of federal interference with state decisions, “EPA was hesitant and slow to insist” that environmental and public-health laws be enforced by the state.
The investigatory panel was also harshly critical of the Michigan law that allowed the city of Flint to be taken over by the state and run by a series of state-appointed “emergency managers.”
“The Flint water crisis occurred when state-appointed emergency managers replaced local representative decision-making in Flint, removing the checks and balances and public accountability that come with public decision-making,” the panel found.
“Emergency managers, not locally elected officials, made the decision to switch to the Flint River as Flint’s primary water supply source …. The emergency manager structure made it extremely difficult for Flint citizens to alter or check decision-making on preparations for use of Flint River water, or to receive responses to concerns about subsequent water-quality issues.”
That’s an important cautionary tale here in Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal wants the power to strip locally elected officials of the power and responsibility to run their schools. The theory behind Deal’s proposed “opportunity school districts” is that state bureaucrats, with no accountability to local citizens or parents and no demonstrated competence at running schools, would be empowered to take over “failing” schools and run them as the state sees fit.
In Flint, when local officials and citizens complained bitterly about the quality of the water coming out of their faucets, the unelected, state-appointed emergency managers stiff-armed critics and in effect concluded that threats to the health of Flint residents didn’t justify the additional spending needed to fix the problem.
“We believe the larger issue is one of accountability” the Flint report concluded. “Who is accountable for the decisions made by the EMs in Flint? We believe the state must assume that accountability. If the state does not assume that responsibility … then no accountability exists at all.”
In short, power without accountability is dangerous.