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Flint paying price for red tape, politicking

Sep 10, 2016

The water crisis in Flint is giving the troubled city renewed attention and a jolt of economic opportunity. But two things are standing in the way: bureaucracy and politics.

Just ask Michael McDaniel. He’s the retired brigadier general in the Michigan National Guard who Mayor Karen Weaver hired last February to head the city’s Flint Action and Stability Team. He’s still waiting to be paid for the work he’s doing.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

He says a “straight lack of capacity” caused the snafu, and he’s confident the checks will start coming soon. Meantime, his job is to “get the lead out,” as the mayor says.

The general is not alone. There are the grinding Friday meetings of the Flint Water Inter-agency Coordinating Committee. There are Attorney General Bill Schuette’s criminal and civil investigations in the water crisis. There is nearly $130 million in philanthropic support from foundations. And a coalition of Michigan business leaders is looking for ways to bolster reinvestment in the city.

But reality intrudes. Philanthropic dollars flow more slowly than big headlines suggest. State appropriations to replace lead service lines require competitive bids and multiple layers of approval. Business leaders mull options. Over it all hang threats of legal trouble.

The answer to the bureaucratic incompetence that delivered the water crisis to every home in Flint risks becoming another mess. It’s fueled by good intentions, legal score-settling and the kind of butt covering we’ve come to expect from bureaucracy at all levels.

The rush to help, greased by public outrage and political posturing, is clogged by process and familiar turf battles. Schuette and Gov. Rick Snyder, for example, continue to battle over whether state Health and Human Services staffers can work on Legionnaire's disease cases lest they taint the attorney general’s investigation.

Flint’s mayor is struggling to assemble a new administration for the cash-strapped city. It remains without a public works director. Its city engineer has been on the job for roughly a month. Its city administrator and chief financial officer abruptly left. And it’s desperately seeking another plumbing inspector to speed water-line replacements.

Two state Department of Environmental Quality staffers criminally charged in April still have not received a preliminary examination — and won’t until January. The wheels of justice are turning slowly, meaning Schuette’s glacially paced investigation risks impeding state help for Flint.

How? Key state officials, even members of the governor’s team, would be foolish not to wonder who Schuette and his investigators will charge next … or how that would complicate their efforts. The AG has repeatedly declined to exclude anyone from his probe, including Snyder himself. That cannot have anything but a chilling effect on the administration’s ability to execute its Flint rescue.

Add the fact that we’re in an election year: control of the state House potentially is up for grabs. Schuette is openly positioning himself to be the Republican nominee for governor two years from now. And the governor is trying to rescue his legacy. In the battle between urgency and bureaucracy, bureaucracy is winning. And Flint and its people pay the price.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.