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In Flint, fix the problem, not the blame

Jack Lessenberry

Forty-odd years ago, when I was in college, I worked in factories and warehouses, and there was a sign I saw posted in at least one of them:

“Fix the problem, not the blame.”

That was a good idea then, and still is now. Unfortunately, the Flint water crisis seems to have entered a new unhealthy phase that involves the exact opposite.

We’re moving from a combination of horror and compassion, to trying to fix the blame rather than the problem. Worse, some people out there are attempting to give this a partisan twist.

Ian Shetron a young conservative columnist from nearby Flushing says, "the lion’s share of responsibility rests with the city,” and claims Flint City Council by a 7 to 1 vote “decided to go to the Flint River as an interim water source.”

Well, there’s only one problem with that statement. It’s not true. 

As the non-partisan Center for Michigan’s Truth Squad reported last weekend:

“The decision to use Flint River water was made by state-appointed emergency managers, not democratically-elected city officials.”

Nor did the Flint council, which at the time was powerless, even vote to ratify that decision.

Three years ago, they simply endorsed the decision to eventually connect the city to the proposed new Karegnondi Water Authority, which plans on using water from Lake Huron, just as Detroit does, once Karegnondi was built.

They never voted specifically on Flint River water.

But Shetron’s column is a model of integrity and statesmanship compared to a bizarre hate-filled rant in last week’s Dome Magazine by a former Republican lawmaker, Chuck Moss.

He blames “UAW Democrats” for everything that happened to Flint, which he calls a “run-down, African-American political stronghold."

The column also identifies the wrong emergency manager, a Snyder appointee who Moss also thinks is a “UAW Democrat,” as the one who made the decision to switch to Flint River water.

Then just for good measure, Moss spelled the man’s name wrong.

Even Governor Snyder seemed to be getting into the pass-the-blame game. During his State of the State speech last Tuesday, he was statesman-like, accepting responsibility.

“I’m sorry most of all that I let you down,” he told Michigan. “You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know the buck stops here with me.”

Well, taking it like a man lasted three days, before the governor went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program.

Then, he blamed employees who worked for him for giving him bad information.

“The heads of the departments were not being given the right information by the quote-unquote experts,” he said, apparently meaning civil service employees.

Well, I guess Mr. Snyder has reason to feel rattled.

Think of it: One minute, prominent national figures are talking about you as a potential member of the next president’s cabinet – maybe even vice-president. The next, the cover of millions of copies of Time magazine were arriving on newsstands and in homes with this headline:

“Toxic water. Sick kids. And the incompetent leaders who betrayed Flint.”

Not easy to take. Still, it might be worthwhile remembering that both Ernest Hemingway and John F. Kennedy defined guts and political courage as “grace under pressure.”

Fixing Flint’s problem is the only way to deal with the blame.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. 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.

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