Of Leaders and Lead

The United Nations is becoming all too familiar with Michigan.  First, they learned of rampant water shut-offs affecting 40% of Detroit’s residents last year.  They will soon be informed of the plight of Flint, Michigan.  For nearly two years, Flint residents were forced to drink, cook and bathe in putrid, toxic water.

The dismissive and unresponsive attitudes at the state level have given way to congressional hearings as well as appeals to the world court, whereby international human rights accords deem access to water a fundamental right.  Why would a local issue, in a first world country, potentially find its way to the high court?

An emergency was declared in Flint long before the water supply was compromised. Michigan law allows for one person to come in and supersede any and all decision made by an elected body. The position is called an Emergency Manager; in 2011 Flint was assigned one, for a second time, illustrating that this current water emergency in Flint has a very recent precedent.

Emergency Managers are appointed by the governor and given cart blanche authority over elected officials in a municipality or public institution. Emergency Managers and those they employ are immune from civil liability.  They make binding decisions, while elected officials serve in a suspended, ceremonial role.  Civil servants may concur with the decision of an EM; disagreeing, however, is inconsequential as the EM holds the overriding, final decision over all matters.

The very officials Flint residents elected were powerless in city matters.  Michigan voters found the EM law to be an overreach, through ballot initiative and popular vote in 2012, repealed it. Governor Snyder and his Republican lead Congress thought otherwise, reinstating the law and attaching a provision making it referendum proof.  The governor and his administration basically rejected the will of the people.

To date, Emergency Managers uniquely and overwhelmingly come into impoverished communities, slashing budgets and cutting resources in the hope of saving money.  The excess cash all too often finds its way to businesses in the form of tax cuts and incentives.  It is one thing to tell middle and lower income families their state is broke, it’s another to walk away with that money and give it to corporations.  If you think this is unique to a neglected city in a once dominant industrial state, I ask you to reconsider.

Money holds sway in American politics. According to the Supreme Court, corporations are persons and money qualifies as speech.  The general public feels their voices have been silenced, their needs unaddressed and their lives in jeopardy.  Cities in financial distress have slashed pensions and wages, privatized public works and reallocated assets from the marginalized to the wealthy.  Political corruption and collusion have given way to companies with low or non-existent tax rates, while recording record profits.

In a time when many municipalities are struggling, leaders of this great nation figured out how to make banks bigger, maintain subsidies for large firms and allow Wall Street to speculate on economic collapse.  They are yet to figure out corporate tax reform and keep companies from stashing money overseas.  Further, they continuously allowed more influence for wealthy donors and industry in our political process.  Government is working, just not for the vast majority of Americans.

Shifting back to Michigan, Detroit, its largest and most influential city is emerging from bankruptcy, the public school district has a half billion-dollar debt and infrastructure statewide poses a public health threat.  On the issue of water safety and security, pipes carrying hazardous materials run through the Great Lakes.  But fear not, the same companies that could potentially destroy the largest body of fresh water in America are policing themselves.

Meanwhile, politicians are diligently increasing the difficulty for citizens to question environmental safety and decreasing transparency for industry. State workers in Flint were being shipped clean water, while residents were continuously told the tap was safe. Most disturbing of all, a General Motors factory in the same town received a clean water source, the municipal water residents were told to drink was corroding auto parts.  As of this writing, the crisis in Flint remains just that and some project months or longer before it’s fixed.

As bizarre and inexplicable as this situation remains, it should serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation.  Multiple cities across America have higher lead levels than Flint.  Since 2008, thirteen municipalities have filled for bankruptcy protection, Detroit being the largest and most recent.  Infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers and 3.6 Trillion dollars of new investment is needed by 2020.

Michigan is one of nineteen states that allow financial emergency intervention.  Municipal budget deficits, degenerating infrastructure and draconian laws are not unique to Michigan.  If we are not proactive in securing vital natural resources, leveling the political playing field and restoring accountability as well as liability to officials making decisions that affect the lives of millions, we will be forced into a vicious spiral of crisis management and mismanagement.

Dr. Bashar Salame is an award winning author and healthcare provider in private practice for fifteen years. Read other articles by Bashar.