Policy

Flint Crisis Prompts House Bill to Curb Use of Emergency Managers

Proposal would target system that gives states more control in failing cities

Darnell Earley, former Emergency Manager for Flint, Mich., testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Tuesday. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When the water in Flint, Mich., started coming out of the pipes with a strange color and odor, the city's emergency fiscal manager Darnell Earley joined a chorus of officials who told residents there was no cause for concern.  

When the water got so bad that it rusted newly manufactured parts at a GM plant, prompting GM to switch to another water source, Earley never told city residents to stop drinking from the tap.  

And when tests showed conclusively that Flint's children had been poisoned with unacceptably high levels of lead in the water, Earley said he was misled by the experts.  

How Flint Became the New 9th Ward

Enraged at the role that a state-appointed manager played in the city's drinking water crisis, House Democrats on Thursday introduced legislation that aims to curtail the growing use of such officials.  

While Congress has little jurisdiction over state laws, the bill introduced by House Judiciary Committee Ranking member John Conyers and co-sponsored by 31 Democrats would withhold federal money from states that appoint managers who, “violate constitutional protections,” or “fail to protect public health and safety.”  

Earley was by no means the only state or federal official who overlooked mounting signs that there was a problem with the water. But Democrats and other critics say he bears a large portion of the blame because it was his job to oversee day-to-day operations in the city when Flint switched its water supply, exposing residents to dangerous levels of lead and other contaminants in their drinking water.  

State and federal officials have since acknowledged that they knew about the problem months before the water was treated or the public was notified.  

“What we have seen is, when you strip away the local accountability in a government structure, the people will suffer as a result of that,” said Barbara Lawrence, D-Mich, who is co-sponsoring the legislation. “Bring someone in to deal with the financial crisis, but you don’t strip away all local control.”  

The bill comes amid a series of explosive congressional hearings on the water contamination crisis, the latest of which was held Thursday. Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was asked to defend his decision to appoint managers in Flint and other communities.  

At the hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep, Gerry Connolly, D-Va., summoned two assistants, each holding stacks of paper as thick as three telephone books, to demonstrate what he described as the flawed law. He said those documents were “edicts” issued by the emergency financial managers in Flint.  

“How many of those 8,000 pages dealt with meaningful steps to protect the citizens of Flint from lead flowing through their pipes?” Connolly asked, addressing Snyder. “Not one. This is a failure of a philosophy of governance you advocated.”  

Connolly said another of the four emergency financial managers that Snyder appointed in Flint recently told the committee in an interview that he considered the city council “impotent,” during his tenure.  

Snyder has been widely criticized for his reliance on emergency financial managers in Michigan. He strengthened the law shortly after taking office in 2010, granting the managers he appointed more sweeping powers.  

He also used more than any of his predecessors, most notably in cities like Flint and Detroit, where the populations are largely low-income and African American.  

On Tuesday, Earley fielded hours of withering questioning from members of both parties—but especially Democrats— for the decisions that led to the slow poisoning of Flint’s residents by drinking water that was contaminated with lead and harmful bacteria.  

Earley left the job last year to become an emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools.  He resigned from that post in February amid mounting criticism about poor conditions, including buckling floors and rodent infestations.  

Conyers has said Michigan’s law usurps control from democratically elected officials.  

“We cannot undo the damage already done by the lead-poisoned water in Flint or fix the harm already caused by the hazardous conditions in Detroit’s public schools,” he said in a statement announcing his bill. “But we can stand together and make sure the unaccountable emergency managers responsible for these disasters – and the legal system that empowered them – are not permitted to inflict further harm on our citizens or our constitutional rights.”  

The bill would authorize the U.S. Attorney General’s office to withhold 5 percent of a federal criminal justice grant, the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program, from states where appointed emergency financial managers are deemed to have failed to protect against voter discrimination, financial mismanagement and threats to public health, among other abuses.  

Asked whether he would support a bill addressing emergency financial managers, Jason Chaffetz R-Utah, said this week he would wait to comment until he had seen it. As the chairman of the Oversight Committee, Chaffetz has been overseeing the Flint hearings.  

Republicans have praised Snyder’s actions in recent months – including his appointment of a task force to investigate his administration, the release of thousands of internal emails and repeated apologies.  

Instead, they have maintained that the brunt of the responsibility lies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose officials testified that they knew about problems with the water as early as July 2015, but did not step in because state officials assured them the situation was under control. The water was not treated -- and residents were not notified of the problem -- until December.  

Flint residents who traveled to Washington to observe the hearings this week said they would welcome a congressional reform of the law.  

“The emergency manager law under Rick Snyder took away our democracy,” said Doris Evelyn Patrick, 62, a licensed social worker. “This was a dictatorship.”  

Michigan is one of more than a dozen states with laws that allow the governor’s office to take control of municipalities and school boards during times of fiscal distress, potentially bypassing corrupt or dysfunctional local governments.  

Such a system was heralded as a key to New York City’s ability to recover from its economic crisis in the 1970s. But it has also been criticized because emergency financial managers are often appointed in cities with deep-seated social and economic problems. The appointed officials are expected to reverse the downward spiral, but often have few tools other than the ability to slash budgets.  

“When cities violate rights or whatever else, we expect the state or federal government to step in and do something,” said Eric Scorsone, the director of the Center for Local Government Finance and Policy at Michigan State University. “That happens all the time. At the same time, you have to criticize the state for creating a public finance system that is broken or at last critically flawed and then throwing in an emergency manager to fix it.”  

Related:

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