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BREAKING NEWS

When government fails the people, who’s responsible?

How far up the line will criminal responsibility for the Flint water crisis extend?

That’s the question prompted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s latest round of charges, targeting two former Flint appointees, Howard Croft and Daugherty Johnson, and two ex-emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose.

Appointed by the state, and specifically by a gubernatorial appointee, emergency managers are assigned to financially strapped local governments, supplanting local elected officials, and have broad latitude to trim budgets and shift services to balance the books.

In Flint, a succession of emergency managers made a series of disastrous decisions: opting to join a new regional water authority, leaving the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department while the new system was under construction, drawing the city’s drinking water from the Flint River, and treating that water at a local plant that wasn’t capable of adequately treating the water — all under the close oversight of then-state Treasurer Andy Dillon, whose immediate supervisor was Gov. Rick Snyder.

So these charges represent the investigation’s first step inside the Snyder administration’s door.

Schuette’s charges heighten the emergency managers’ and appointees’ actions from disastrous to potentially criminal, citing a stalled $85-million bond sale necessary to finance the build-out of the new regional water system as evidence that those officials intentionally acted under false pretenses — namely, refusing to halt or stall the project when it became evident the local treatment plant was insufficient for the task.

Each man faces at least one 20-year felony. Schuette has previously charged eight state and local officials in the Flint water probe, which lead investigator Andrew Arena says is closer to its end than its beginning.

In making these charges, Schuette is re-drawing the parameters of who, exactly, may expect to be held accountable for failures of government — an expansion we shouldn’t have needed Schuette to make.

From the first days of the Flint water crisis, we urged Snyder to conduct a thorough post-mortem, determining what happened, and why, and to stop hedging his apologies with guilt cast at others — local elected officials, or career bureaucrats, or whomever else might make a likely target — and to release any and all information and records that could help the Michiganders likewise understand what had happened.

Snyder released tens of thousands of e-mails. But because the release was voluntary, not compelled by state open-records laws, it’s impossible to ensure that all relevant documents were made public. The state Senate this month stalled a bill that would have expanded Michigan’s freedom of information laws to include the governor and the Legislature.

Snyder also impaneled a task force to determine the root causes of the crisis. Its excellent and thorough report was made months ago, to much fanfare — and little action by Snyder or the state Legislature.

Schuette’s investigation may force Snyder’s hand, at least on one portion of the task force’s findings.

The state emergency manager law, the task force wrote, needs significant revision. In Flint, the consequences of unilateral authority are writ large: When Flint residents began to complain that their water smelled and tasted bad, that it caused rashes and was off-color — and when a local General Motors plant said it could not use Flint water because it was too corrosive — emergency managers brushed those complaints aside.

The task force suggests that an emergency manager shouldn’t be residents’ only recourse, that residents should be able to appeal an EM’s decisions to an outside entity. An emergency manager should also take input from residents and locally elected officials, the latter of whom now serve only at an EM’s discretion.

Under narrow circumstances, it is appropriate for the state to intervene when a city or school district that has lost its ability to make good on its basic responsibilities, failing to ensure the health and welfare of its residents. It’s an unfortunate necessity that should be used only as a last, desperate resort. But the state has an obligation to make the law work better for Michiganders — and after Schuette’s charges, for the folks it hopes will serve as emergency managers.

Because right now, who would even take that job?

Free Press (Detroit)

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