Written by Dr. Richard Koral, AEU Leader-in-Training, on behalf of AEU Board
January 27, 2016 — Why do we have an organized government anyway? Sometimes it’s important to stop and reconsider the fundamental questions, especially when, by its unresponsiveness, government calls its very worth into question.
We expect government to accomplish the big things that individuals cannot do on their own. Constructing municipal water and sewer systems are the examples that come immediately to mind. Major roads, tunnels and bridges, and systems of justice and military organizations are other popular examples. Many of us will say that protecting people’s health and safety is its fundamental task and that we should generally organize ourselves so as to assure that all members of society have reasonable protection against the harshest hazards of life. But everyone, no matter what their political stripe, accepts that providing clean water is a job for government.
I review these basic principles in trying to understand the debacle in Flint, Michigan. There, the state government and the Flint city government, run by state appointed city managers, have managed to poison the residents of Flint with toxic drinking water. For as long as a year and a half all complaints and warnings that the water was dangerous were ignored or rejected. Residents of the city, who are majority African-American and predominantly poor, including tens of thousands of children, now have blood lead levels that guaranty a health crisis will snowball for years to come.
How did this happen? While the facts are still emerging and investigations are inevitable, some things appear clear already.
The governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, an accountant and money manager who took the state management of Flint in hand, was elected under the banner of lower taxes, and small government. The decision to discontinue buying water from the adequate but expensive Detroit water system was made to lower costs. A new plan, to draw water in concert with other municipalities from Lake Huron, was undertaken. But they chose to discontinue using Detroit water immediately, two years before the replacement would be ready for operation, and to draw water from the Flint River in the meantime. Apparently, state environmental protection officials did not approve, but the plan was pressed forward. Cautions about the use of the Flint River were overruled.
When should concerns about cost trump concerns over health? When is it reasonable to expose an entire city (the 300th largest municipality in the country with just under 100,000 residents) to caustic water in the name of expediency? Can it ever be justified? One can readily suspect that were the city composed of an affluent white population, the result would have been wholly different.
Managing cities and the health risks to their inhabitants is not limited to the simple, stark calculations that are run in a business model. Ethically, the first imperative of government must be the health and safety of its population, not the budgetary bottom line. Declaring democracy a failure and replacing the elected officials with state apparatchiks severs the ties between the community and its governance.
Business managers can certainly bring skills into government. But governance is not simply a matter of asset management and cash flow. Civil governance requires a recognition of what its fundamental purposes are—engaging the participation of the community in the decisions of governance and protecting, not gambling with, the health, safety, and security of all the people who live there.