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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

The governor and the mayor: Perceived snubs strain Flint recovery

When Gov. Rick Snyder recently unveiled a 75-point plan to respond to the lead crisis in Flint, one point was still missing:

Input from the mayor of Flint.

Eight state agencies are listed in the governor’s news release earlier this month as having formulated short, intermediate and long-term goals for the devastated city, but Flint Mayor Karen Weaver wasn’t in meetings to help develop those goals. The mayor only learned of the 75-point plan a week before governor held a press conference in her own city, after she believed the plan had been finalized. The state sent Weaver a quote written for her to be included in a news release. The mayor rejected the quote.

Two days later, Snyder was back in Flint for another press conference to unveil the final report of the Flint Water Task Force, an all-star commission appointed by the governor to investigate the causes for the crisis and recommend solutions. One of the task force’s criticisms was the failure of state leaders to include local leaders in the decision-making process.

Mayor Weaver wasn’t invited to that press conference, either.

She wasn’t given an advance copy of the report – something even journalists received – and only learned of the time and location of the press conference through a call from someone at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

To be sure, there’s blame on both sides – the governor’s office has at times not included Weaver in planning and press conferences, but Snyder’s people counter that Weaver has at times either declined to participate in or not attended meetings with state officials. “It’s baffling,” said Chris Kolb, co-chair of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, who has navigated mistrust and bad communication between the city and the state. “I don’t quite get what’s going on right now.”

Irreconcilable differences?

Call it a bad marriage. Say the governor is from Mars and the mayor is from Venus. But there’s no denying that there is a troubling communication breakdown that burdens efforts to restore clean drinking water and provide aid to Flint children who were harmed.

“Lack of communication is what got us into this problem,” a frustrated Weaver told Bridge. “And it’s still happening.”

In July 2015, then-Snyder Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore wrote in an email to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials that “I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt ... These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

The final report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force drew the same conclusion – that the state was listening to its own expert staffers exclusively, rather than considering the views of outside experts and the people of Flint who were complaining of health problems.

"One of the biggest lessons we hope to impart in our report is the need for government leaders to listen to their constituents; in Flint that didn't happen,” Kolb said at the March 23 press conference unveiling the task force report.

To Weaver, it appears that lesson hasn’t been learned. She tore into Snyder and his team later that same day in a news release, scolding the governor for excluding Flint leaders from meetings about the future of their city.

“The continued failure to communicate with the elected officials here in Flint is simply astonishing,” Mayor Weaver said in the news release. “I have avoided placing blame for the Flint water crisis, trying to focus the community’s and my attention on moving forward. That can happen only if the state works cooperatively with local officials. But Gov. Snyder continues to ignore me, my administration, and the residents of Flint.

“He still doesn’t seem to understand that the citizens of Flint no longer trust him or his administration. They don’t want solutions imposed on them by the state, even if the efforts are intended to help. After living years under a series of emergency managers, the people of Flint want to know their elected officials are in control of getting the city out of this untenable situation.”

Political fissure

Weaver was elected last year on a wave of voter anger about Flint’s water crisis. On election night, Weaver said she hoped her election would give residents upset about the crisis “a seat at the table.”

A clinical psychologist by training and a small business owner in Flint, Weaver initially muted her criticism of the governor, arguing that her role was to help assure Flint received the state funding it needed to emerge from the lead poisoning disaster. Weaver stood beside the governor at some press conferences last fall about the crisis, saying it was important to work together on solution.

In early January, with his emergency managers under attack, the governor spoke of giving Weaver “more authority” over Flint’s operations.

“I want to be partnering with the local official, which is the mayor,” Snyder said. “I’m excited for the role she’s playing there, and how we can work more closely together.”

But relations have cooled since then. One reason may be that the city has cited far higher estimates than the state on the cost of replacing lead water lines. Snyder’s 75-point plan doesn’t commit to immediately replacing all lead pipes in the city, an action that Weaver argues should be a top priority. The city has begun digging up lead pipes on its own.

Partisan politics also may be playing a role in the relationship between the Democratic mayor and the Republican governor. In February, Weaver appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad preceding Michigan’s presidential primary that addressed the Flint crisis. “She’s the one who brought it to another level of attention, and that’s what we needed,” Weaver says approvingly of Clinton in the ad.

Whatever the reason, Weaver wasn’t given an advanced copy of the task force report or invited to attend the news conference in Flint where the report was released.

Neither was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint doctor who helped expose high rates of lead in the bloodstreams of the city’s children, and whose reporting was initially downplayed by state officials. Hanna-Attisha tried to attend the news conference, but was told the event was for media only, according to Kolb and fellow task force co-chair Ken Sikkema.

Sikkema, former Republican Senate majority leader, and Kolb, a former Democratic legislator, told Bridge that the governor’s office was in charge of logistics for the event, Both men said they didn’t know Flint leaders weren’t invited.

Sikkema said he could understand why Weaver would be unhappy about the snub.

“It never even occurred us that they wouldn’t invite the mayor,” Kolb said. “There have been several incidents like this. You would think there would be a hypersensitivity to making sure you’re on the same page as the city, to build a really true partnership, because it’s going to have to take a partnership.”

Ari Adler, spokesman for Gov. Snyder, said he assumed his office was only handling logistics for the media, and that he thought “the task force was alerting the appropriate officials … I don’t know if the mayor was or was not invited but in hindsight, we should have closed that loop better.”

State frustrations

State officials say they have had their own frustrations with Weaver. Snyder appointed the mayor to the 17-person Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee created early this year. The body is charged with making recommendations for upgrading the city’s infrastructure and addressing health issues related to lead poisoning. But the mayor “has only been at one or two” of the six meetings held so far, Adler said.

In response to a question about Snyder scheduling events in Flint without informing the mayor, Adler pointed out that “the Mayor’s Office has done a number of things without informing the Governor’s Office. That’s not a complaint but merely an observation over how both offices could be more proactive” in coordinating efforts.

An illustration of the poor communications between state and city officials was the creation and unveiling of Snyder’s 75-point plan. The Snyder administration sent Weaver a copy of the plan a week before the announcement. The plan was exhaustive, included short-term goals such as replacing plumbing in schools and daycares and long-term goals such as smoothing the eventual transition of water source to the Karegnondi Water Authority.

Weaver considered the plan to be a finished product, rather than something she and other city officials could still have input on, and didn’t respond. Adler told Bridge that the governor’s office was requesting feedback and didn’t get it.

“Our office even offered to have the mayor participate by having a quote in the news release but she declined,” Adler said. Weaver told Bridge that the governor’s office wrote a quote for her and asked her to approve it, an action that, for the mayor of a city that had been run by the state by a series of emergency managers, felt patronizing.

“I would have preferred, if we were doing something, to be at the table,” said Weaver, who had been working with Flint community leaders on a plan of their own. “When I found out, it had already been done; if there were people connected to Flint involved, I didn’t know about it.”

Weaver said Flint’s plan, which has not been finalized, “is a very different plan” than the one released by Snyder, with different priorities. Weaver wants all lead pipes to be removed in Flint. Snyder’s plan doesn’t go that far, but does set as a goal to “work with the city to plan and prioritize lead pipe service line removal.”

“We have people who are trying to make decisions about you and for you, and they’re not here,” Weaver said of state officials. “We’re the ones still using bottled water. We know what to do. We just need the resources to do it.”

Having two separate plans is unsustainable, said task force co-chair Kolb, who is president of the Michigan Environmental Council. “The state can’t just do this, the city can’t just do this This is somewhat bothersome that after all the lessons that should have been learned, this is still going on.”

Meeting on a regular basis would be a start. For example, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has worked in Flint three to five days a week since January, yet Weaver says she’s only met with Calley twice, saying “he’s doing his thing and I’m doing mine.”

Adler told Bridge that “Gov. Snyder, Lt. Gov. Calley and many other members of the Snyder administration are regularly in Flint working on solving problems, meeting with elected officials, concerned pastors and other community leaders. Team members, including the governor and lt. governor, have met with the mayor and will continue to do so based on availability – which includes the availability of the mayor depending on her schedule.”

Meeting occasionally when everyone is available, and “doing his thing while I’m doing mine” is not good enough, Kolb said. “Someone high up with the state should be meeting with the mayor every week,” Kolb said. “You can’t just hand someone a 75-point plan. People buy in when they have true input into the process.”

“Were the ones with the most skin in the game,” Weaver said. “All we want is (for the state) to recognize that we want to be involved in the decisions. We got into this situation by someone from the outside making bad decisions. And it’s gotten old.”

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