Could Holding Public Officials Personally Accountable Prevent Administrative Anarchy?
In an effort to save money, the city of Flint in Michigan decided in 2013 to join Karegnondi Water Authority, which was constructing its own pipeline that was projected to be complete in 2017. In the meantime, city officials turned to use water from the Flint River, which went into effect in April 2014. Within weeks of the switch, Flint residents began complaining about the quality of the new water, ranging from odor, color, and taste. Further investigation found elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. Although the state, the city of Flint and the Environmental Protection Agency can be blamed for this issue, I believe the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is primarily responsible for Flint’s water crisis.
Prior to the switch, there were concerns regarding the use of water from the Flint River. For instance, Flint’s laboratory and water quality supervisor, Mike Glasgow, voiced his concern in an email to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Despite the warnings, the city started pumping water from the Flint River for the first time in more than 50 years. That summer, E. Coli and total coliform bacteria were identified in Flint’s water, and residents were prompted to boil their water. In the winter, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality cautioned Flint about its violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because its water contained significant levels of trihalomethanes, which are toxic by-products of chlorine disinfection. It was also observed that blood lead levels in children increased after the switch to the Flint River. Further tests on hundreds of homes for lead in Flint were done by a team from Virginia Tech. The results showed that there was a severe lead issue in the city water, but the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality dismissed the findings. In winter of 2015, a state of emergency over the lead levels in the city’s water was declared by Flint’s mayor and the governor.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not treat its water after changing from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. By failing to implement a corrosion control program, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality exposed Flint residents to contaminated water. Even if officials from the department weren’t aware that they needed a corrosion control program, they should have been quick to correct the mistake when evidence of high lead was produced in February 2015. When research showed lead in Flint’s water system and studies revealed an increase in lead levels in children, instead of finding solutions, the department repeatedly discredited findings of lead in Flint’s water and deemphasized the public health threat it caused.
Most public administration disasters cannot be easily pinned onto an action committed by a single individual. Since the structure of decisions and policies of the government are contributions of many different individuals and hence, it is challenging to accurately identify who is responsible for the failures of political outcomes. While I believe the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality should be primarily held accountable for Flint’s water crisis, the city’s emergency managers and the Environmental Protection Agency are also liable, notably since the latter oversaw the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The Environmental Protection Agency delayed enforcing federal laws that would possibly have ensured safe drinking water for the residents. The emergency managers appointed by Governor Rick Snyder made crucial decisions that contributed to Flint’s water situation, such as pumping water from the Flint River when reports of water quality problems emerged. Since the government was keen on money-saving measures, leaders failed to place competent people to manage the city’s water infrastructure. Public officials focused on savings rather than critical long-term priorities. The public administration incompetency in the Flint water crisis was due to the complete lack of leadership by Michigan government and regulatory leaders whose actions and inactions caused this disaster and public trust in government.
Flint’s water crisis revealed the lack of transparency at all levels of our political system. Locating accountability in consequence of an emergency like Flint water is particularly disturbing, as we are dealing with a system that is radically broken from within and pressure and fear of reverberation making officials unwilling to speak up. To establish a framework for the discourse of responsibility, we first need to determine whether personal responsibility could genuinely support democratic accountability by analyzing and understanding the social and political structure in which public officials act. We should cultivate and encourage praise and blame toward public officials by first identifying officials who are personally responsible for the policies and decisions that are promulgated. Accordingly, this would lay a ground for democratic answerability of the leaders who make unacceptable policies and decisions. By holding public officials personally responsible will encourage careful thoughts in decision making and subsequently allow citizens and authorities act on the political outcome by rewarding or enforcing sanctions, such as dismissal, criminal charges, and exclusion from working for the government in the future.