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Flint task force: administration changes must come from top down

April 19, 2016

Members of Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed Flint water crisis task force reiterated their scathing critiques of the administration Tuesday, telling lawmakers their findings showed flaws in the state water office’s culture and the emergency manager law.

In a presentation to the Legislature’s joint committee looking into the Flint water crisis, former lawmakers Ken Sikkema and Chris Kolb, who co-chaired the task force, and fellow task force members Dr. Larry Reynolds and Dr. Matthew Davis, laid out the findings and policy recommendations outlined in the task force report released three weeks ago.

But one of the main findings in the report has little to do with policy. Moving forward, the state needs to address the culture that allowed the Flint water crisis to happen, task force members said.

There’s not a specific piece of legislation that can incite change in the state’s water office, Sikkema said. When the task force looked at the evidence presented and interviewed key players, they found time and time again that outside experts brought in information that conflicted with the state’s data.

The default position of the department, he said, was to see such information as a threat rather than as an opportunity to reconsider their own information.

“Cultural change with organizations have to start at the top,” he said.

Kolb said one of the first things the task force agreed on was that the tone of the department, which denied the findings of anyone who disagreed with the state’s position and discredited them, was distasteful and harmful to the public the department is supposed to serve.

Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), who chairs the committee, told reporters that he understands the concerns that there’s a cultural issue in the DEQ – in his personal experience, he said he was shot down by the department five times before he got a meeting to get an update on the state of wetlands during his first term in the House.

“I think this is a culture that’s been there for a very long time,” he said.

Democrats, however, were quick to point out Snyder’s changes to his administration and efforts to reduce regulations, implying that Snyder could be the root cause of the culture so roundly criticized by the task force.

Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said that from the beginning of his time in Lansing, “there has been a direction from the top . . . to make the DEQ and our regulatory bodies less robust.”

The task force only dug deeply into the water office, so its members were not able to say whether the cultural issues were department-wide. And although the group recommended a state ombudsman for public health, they were not convinced the water office would have a better home in the Department of Health and Human Services because the department is so large now.

The task force also recommended considerable changes in the emergency manager policy as part of its report.

Sikkema said the task force interviewed all four emergency managers who served during the period of the Flint water crisis. All had constant contact with the state on financial matters, but on other key policy issues related to the daily operation of running a city, they had little assistance, he said.

“The state emergency manager structure does a tremendous job providing support and help on the financial piece,” Sikkema said. “It’s sort of loosey goosey on everything else.”

The emergency managers “brought nothing, and they left less,” Reynolds said, adding that citizens had no recourse when problems began appearing and had little expertise outside of finance.

In the end, the task force also concluded that environmental injustice occurred based on the principles of allowing equal and fair treatment when it comes to environmental health, and giving residents a meaningful voice.

“In the case of Flint, it fails both,” Sikkema said.

Rep. Ed Canfield (R-Sebewaing) questioned task force members on policies moving forward, because from his perspective, if people had followed the current rules and regulations the problem would not have occurred.

“I am not interested in providing or adding new regulation,” Canfield said. “We don’t need more regulations; we just need people to follow them.”

Reynolds disagreed, noting there are current loopholes in state law that could leave critical areas such as elementary schools and daycares at risk of bad water.

Although he agreed that the Flint water crisis might have been avoided if agencies had followed the letter, spirit and intent of current rules, Reynolds said it’s unlikely the state will see any meaningful change unless more safeguards are put into place.

“The danger is when we say nothing needs to change, that may be what got us where we are now,” he said. “There needs to be change.”

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in a series of hearings meant to review governmental actions associated with the Flint water crisis and inform future policy suggestions to prevent similar occurrences from happening again.

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