‘Horrific experiment’: MI Gov. Snyder slammed for power grabs from minority communities, cronyism

© Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder
Be it lead-poisoned water in Flint or crumbling schools in Detroit, political blame is turning to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R), who has overseen the transfer of power from local governments to appointed emergency managers tasked with saving money.

Governor Snyder has appointed seven emergency managers to cover various cities or schools facing financial disasters since 2011. While he isn’t the first governor to resort to such measures, his Democratic predecessor, Jennifer M. Granholm, appointed only five during her two terms. Snyder’s second term is scheduled to end in 2019.

Emergency managers take over fiscal decisions concerning their assigned jurisdictions, often to the dismay of local residents or partially deposed politicians. After being forced to file for municipal bankruptcy in 2013, Detroit was lauded as a comeback story by many the following year. That is less the case now, however, as the city’s teachers have been engaging in unofficial strikes called “sick-outs” in anticipation of the school district running out of money this coming April. Meanwhile, Flint residents are clamoring for clean water. Both cities are under the direction of separate emergency managers.

Many Michigan communities in the worst financial straits are predominantly black, such as Detroit with an 80 percent black population. This fact has led some to argue that race is a factor in determining which cities or areas are assigned emergency managers.

“Tell me what race dominates in those communities that get emergency managers?” Hubert Yopp, mayor of Highland Park, told The New York Times.

“People have a very real reason to question what that’s about. It would be one thing if the emergency managers worked with the local governments to make things better. But it’s about having dictator power in the city. The locals have no say,” Yopp added.

Highland Park is 93 percent black and has also had an emergency manager in recent years.

For others, it’s primarily an issue of control and failed governance.

“They’ve chosen this policy, and this is the outcome,” Jim Ananich, a Democratic state senator who represents a part of Flint, told The Times. “We have poisonous water flowing through people’s faucets. In the Detroit Public Schools, they have overcrowded classrooms and rats. Unfortunately, the emergency managers in these communities have been failing.”

“I have said that a different strategy and a different law should be put in place to help distressed cities,” Marcus Muhammad, mayor of Benton Harbor, told the Times. “Not to poison democracies, poison water, poison communities.”

Benton Harbor is 89 percent black, and Muhammad called his city’s experience with emergency managers a “horrific experiment” that left the city saddled with lawsuits as a result of the fiscal decisions that they had made.

As more details come to light, the political blame could narrow both in scope and reason, however. With new evidence detailing questionable decisions leading to the current crises, Snyder is unlikely to escape the crosshairs in a highly Democratic state.

As it turns out, Darnell Earley, who is currently the emergency manager for Detroit schools, was once the emergency manager for the city of Flint. Earley left the latter position in January 2015, and another Snyder appointee, Jerry Ambrose, took over until the end of April.

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has unearthed court testimony from a case revolving around Flint’s public health, which shows Ambrose testified that another previous Flint emergency manager, Ed Kurtz, had consulted with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on changing the city’s water supply to the polluted Flint River. Kurtz rejected the idea in 2012, but then Earley did an about face in 2014.

A 2014 letter from Earley thanks the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for “the option of continuing to purchase water from DWSD,” but adds, “The City of Flint has actively pursued using the Flint River as a temporary water source,” and, “There will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water [from DWSD] to serve its residents and businesses after April 17, 2014.”

That letter contradicts talking points from Snyder’s office, where the repeated claim has been that DWSD terminated its service with Flint, forcing it to use the river. In fact, DWSD had only terminated the service contract in order to renegotiate terms. Former director of public works for Flint, Howard Croft, who resigned this past November, told the ACLU of Michigan that the Snyder administration was directly involved in the cost-cutting move to switch to the lead-ridden Flint River.

Last week, Snyder released thousands of emails going back to the beginning of 2012. However, complaints over heavy redactions and the fact that the release didn’t go back to the beginning of his first term may be a preview of how the governor’s appeal to transparency won’t be enough to quell public discontent.

As the public demands accountability, Snyder’s creation of an investigative panel isn’t getting off on the right foot for some. Snyder appointed Todd Flood, a former prosecutor, to look into whether any state laws had been broken in the handling of the Flint water crisis. Flood happens to be one of Snyder’s former campaign contributors, however, donating a combined $3,000 to Snyder during his 2014 gubernatorial race. Nonetheless, Flood assured attendees of a press conference announcing his appointment, “I don’t have a bias or prejudice one way or another.”

Snyder’s style of governance has come into question not only due to his appointment of emergency managers, but also questionable cost-cutting measures, such as allowing state agencies to contract out work they would otherwise be responsible for managing themselves.

Last year, the Michigan Department of Corrections paid out $250 million to fulfill 185 service contracts, ranging from counseling to food preparation for its prisoners. One of those private contractors, a food supplier called Aramark, finally ended up losing its business with the state, but only after thousands of complaints had gone ignored regarding maggot infestations, food shortages, drug smuggling, and sexual relationships among workers and inmates. A 30-person panel is currently being set up to oversee contracts before they’re signed onto by the department.