Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take

Jack Lessenberry from Michigan Radio

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Daily interviews and essays about politics and current events with newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry.More from Jack Lessenberry from Michigan Radio »

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Oil drilling in Southfield

A week ago I mentioned that Jordan Development, a major oil and gas exploration company based in Traverse City, wanted to drill a well on a church property in Southfield. Southfield is a well-settled, bustling middle-class suburb of 75,000, and the idea of an oil well in such a community seemed unbelievable to some. It seemed unbelievable to me as well, so did the idea that the city couldn't stop it. I reported last week that as far as I could tell, whether or not to allow the permit for the well was entirely up to the MDEQ, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which, as you may know, made some terrible mistakes in connection with the lead poisoning crisis in Flint. One woman told me that I was a shoddy reporter, and that the city could stop it if it really wanted to, so I decided to go see Southfield's mayor, Ken Siver. I asked if the city could stop the drilling. He told me, "We don't know that," but he is going to do everything he can to try. The decision to grant the permit is officially up to the MDEQ, which, at the mayor's urging, agreed to hold a public hearing on the issue Feb. 17. The city may need every one of the thousand seats in the Southfield High School auditorium. Residents are upset, as their Facebook page "Stop the Drilling" plainly indicates. They've held numerous protests at the church site, a 110-acre parcel that for many years was a Roman Catholic friary known as Duns Scotus. Word of Faith International Christian Center, a huge congregation founded by former Republican politician Keith Butler, bought the site in 1998. Butler, a former Detroit City Councilman who now uses the title bishop, has long been a controversial figure. When he ran for the party's U.S. Senate nomination 10 years ago, he was attacked for living in a $1.3 million mansion in another suburb, and for pushing the several thousand members of his congregation to give large sums to the church. Now, he wants to lease 40 acres to Jordan Development. Bishop Butler has declined to talk to the press about this, but his church website has a list of reasons they should be allowed to drill, including: "The United States has a longstanding, constitutional right, which allows landowners to reap the benefits from their ownership of private property." A church spokesman also told Crain's Detroit Business that Word of Faith was enthusiastic about the drilling idea, because, "it could be a source of income or revenue." The mayor however, is anything but enthusiastic. The ground formation is porous rock. There are still hundreds of homes in the area who depend on well water, and the Rouge River is only a mile away. Any ground water contamination could be disastrous. Southfield is also the state's one thriving, middle-class mainly African-American suburb. Race doesn't count for much here; community does. Siver, who is white, won a landslide over an African-American opponent last fall. The mayor wants to spend his time concentrating on economic development, not worrying about his city being ruined by an oil spill. But that may be up to the state. Specifically, the department that got it so wrong in Flint. 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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When did he know it?

When did he know it? There's no question that some of the wilder criticism of Governor Snyder has gone too far. There's absolutely no evidence the governor, or anybody else, deliberately set out to poison the people of Flint as some sort of racist plot. Accusations of that sort are inexcusably irresponsible. However, there are legitimate questions about what he knew and when he knew it. And yesterday, new information surfaced proving that, at the very least, the governor's staff failed to properly inform him. We learned that two of the governor's top aides knew almost a year ago that a huge surge in Legionnaires ' disease coincided with the decision to switch to Flint River water. The governor himself claims that he only learned about this last month, and that he then immediately announced it. Yet according to a stream of emails released by Progress Michigan, two of his top aides, urban affairs chief Harvey Hollins and the now fired former DEQ director Dan Wyant, not only knew about it, but knew Genesee County Health Department officials believed it might be linked to the water. Yet we are being asked to believe that they never told the governor. Brad Wurfel, the now fired and disgraced spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, belittled reporters who asked about possible lead contamination in the water. According to the email stream, he did much the same when it came to county health department concerns about Legionnaire's Disease. So did another now suspended DEQ supervisor who worked in the agency's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. The emails, which you can read on Michigan Radio's website, indicate they were concerned with politics and public relations spin, not the residents' health. And we are being asked to believe the governor was never told any of this till last month. Progress Michigan is an unabashedly left-wing organization. But it is hard to disagree with what Lonnie Scott, their director, said in a story by Michigan Radio's Kate Wells yesterday."How many times is the governor allowed to say that he didn't know before we get to legitimately ask who the hell is running this state?" Scott added: "Either the governor is covering up his knowledge of this crisis or his governing culture does not allow for important information to flow from his top advisers to his desk." We now have a situation in which the best the governor's supporters can do is claim that he was an incompetent administrator who set up a dysfunctional staff system.I thought for the first time yesterday that there now is a chance this governor might have to resign. In fact, state Democratic Chair Brandon Dillon is now calling on Snyder to quit, saying he was either lying or so incompetent he isn't fit to serve. Tim Greimel, the House Minority Leader, was a bit more cautious, saying only that if the governor "knew about it and did nothing he should resign immediately." This scandal still seems more like Iran-Contra, where President Reagan didn't pay attention to aides running amok, than Watergate, where a chief executive actively directed a cover-up. But the key Watergate question still pertains: What did he know and when did he know it? Over the next few weeks, Mr. Snyder should expect to hear that asked a lot. 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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Flint and our futures

Last weekend Cindy Estrada took her twin twelve-year-old sons Jason and Jesse to Flint, to do what they could to help. What they saw shook them up. Knocking on doors, delivering water, they met a grandmother who dissolved in tears. She felt she was responsible for poisoning her grandchildren by bathing them in water that state officials had told the residents was safe. They met another woman, an immigrant who thought the water was safe to drink because she was boiling it first. She didn't realize that didn't remove the lead. And she was nursing a baby. There are a lot of stories like that, and a lot of people trying to help. But Cindy Estrada has a unique perspective. She is one of the highest-ranking women in labor history, the vice president of the United Auto Workers currently in charge of General Motors. She is also the first Latina to rise that high in the union, and at 47, is younger than much of the union's top leadership. There's been a lot of speculation she might become the UAW's next president when current leader Dennis Williams steps down in less than three years. When I sat down for coffee with her yesterday she told me that's something she isn't even sure she would want. Being the mother of two almost-teenagers is very important to her, though it helps that her husband, himself a former UAW official, took early retirement. She does acknowledge, however, that she may serve as a role model for women, minorities and others who think of labor leaders as burly, aging white guys with gray hair and heavy glasses. What Estrada is passionately interested in is social activism. The UAW in its glory days under Walter Reuther wasn't just interested in wages, but in workers' quality of life. She doesn't want to directly criticize what's happened in the movement since then, and clearly admires Dennis Williams, who has been a mentor. But for her, that's what unionism is about. She got started as an organizer, cutting her teeth on a failed drive to bring the UAW to a parts supplier. Estrada told me negotiating with suppliers, who employ most of the workers in the industry these days, is especially challenging. Raise wages too high, and automakers transfer work elsewhere. But as things stand now, some full-time workers still qualify for food stamps. "There's a myth that increasing manufacturing jobs is automatically going to revive the middle class," she said. Too often, that isn't so. Cindy Estrada knows it might be prudent to stay neutral in the presidential contest for now. But she passionately supports Bernie Sanders. She was chosen to introduce President Obama when he visited workers in Detroit last month, but while she admires much of what he's done, believes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal signed yesterday will be disastrous for American workers. But yesterday, what she most wanted to say was not to forget Flint. She knows that in a few weeks or months, media attention will move elsewhere, but the problems and the poisoned children will remain. She thinks there's a lesson here about what happens when "running government as a business" means people are treated like discounted inventory. And I think the record shows she is right. 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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Punishing the Messengers

Back in the bad old final years of the Soviet Union, when the economy and the infrastructure were falling apart and the government was mostly non-responsive, there was a sour little joke that reminds me of Michigan today. In the Soviet story, Stalin and Konstantin Chernenko, one of his increasingly ineffectual successors are going across Siberia on a train. Suddenly, it breaks down. There are, of course, no spare parts. When the engineer can't get it started, Stalin has him shot. That doesn't help. So after sitting there for a while, Chernenko says, "Okay. Let's close the blinds and pretend the train is moving."Which brings us to the legislature and the Detroit Public Schools. The schools are in disgraceful shape. Buildings are falling apart. The heat doesn't work. There are rodents, mold and a lack of necessary supplies. Teachers are underpaid, overstressed, and often at risk of violent behavior. Frankly, I don't know how so many teachers have tolerated this as long as they have, and I'm awestruck that so many have continued to try to teach often hungry, uncomfortable and miserable students in such conditions. After years of this, teachers have begun staging sickout wildcat strikes in a desperate attempt to draw attention to their plight. Teacher strikes are of course technically illegal, though they have been an occasional and largely tolerated bargaining tactic in suburban districts for decades. This isn't about getting a raise, however; it is a desperate attempt to get somebody to notice the squalor. Unfortunately, many legislators couldn't care less. Detroit is a long way from their districts. Though none will say so publicly, many of them view what's going on from a racist perspective. They think this is about a bunch of blacks who ran their schools into the ground and now want another state bailout. There's also another ingredient in what is fast becoming an explosive dynamic: the Republican legislative leaders hate unions, and teachers' unions in particular. So instead of trying to do something to help the schools, they are instead attempting to ram through a three-bill package designed to harshly punish both teachers and their unions for striking. Ron Bieber, the state president of the AFL-CIO, correctly said this was an outrage, and added "the last thing we should be doing is punishing teachers for speaking up and shining a light" on the impossible conditions in which children are forced to learn. The lawmakers may not care less about that, but the reality is they are also just giving out tickets on the dance floor of the Titanic. With their revenues largely drained by the loss of students to charter schools and other alternatives, the Detroit Public Schools are headed for bankruptcy and disaster. They will run completely out of cash by May. Governor Snyder months ago offered a sensible solution, but it would cost money the legislators are unwilling to spend. Unfortunately, bankruptcy will cost us all much more, as the state does have an obligation to educate our children. Our lawmakers are, in the words of the old Soviet story, trying to shoot the engineers and close the curtains of this runaway train. But unless we do something soon, it is going to go off the rails, with consequences devastating for us all. 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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Risking the environment for profits

If anyone doubts the danger of not appropriately considering environmental hazards, they need only to consider Flint. To try to save a little money, the state allowed thousands of people to be poisoned, with consequences that will cost us far more in money, let alone human tragedy, than continuing to spend a little more for clean water would have. Yet, incredibly, some people still don't seem to get it. In Monroe County's Summerfield Township, not far from the Ohio border, local officials have been waging a lonely fight against a corporation that wanted to drill an oil injection well. Experts saw this as extremely dangerous, because most of the area's few thousand people depend on wells for their water. Much of the soil there is of a spongy variety called karst, which could easily lead to groundwater contamination if there were to be an accident. The company which wanted to do the drilling has now backed off – but apparently only because the price of oil is now so cheap it didn't make economic sense to drill for more. When adjusted for inflation, the price of gasoline is, in fact, less than the 30 cents a gallon I remember paying in 1971. But we all know that will change, and those who would drill will be back. Even more incredible is what is going on today in the crowded Detroit suburb of Southfield. Several years ago, the Word of Faith International Christian Center bought a former Catholic friary on 110 acres there. Now, to raise money, the congregation's leader, Keith Butler, a former Detroit Councilman and unsuccessful Republican U.S. Senate candidate, wants to drill for oil on church grounds. This has sparked a huge outcry in the neighborhood and from city officials, who are very much against the idea. But Butler sees dollar signs, as does Jordan Development, an oil exploration company located in Traverse City. The company says they are very environmentally conscious, and in so many words, are telling residents to relax. Jordan has applied to the MDEQ, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, for permission to drill a test well. Considering the way in which the MDEQ disgraced itself over the water in Flint, you'd like to think they'd now err on the side of safety. But we just don't know. There are new tougher regulations in effect for those who would drill in heavily populated areas. However, the restrictions only apply when there are 40 or more occupied dwellings within a quarter mile of the well. In this case, there are a few less than that, so they might get the permit to drill. In fact, Hal Fitch, the MDEQ official in charge of oil and gas drilling, made the interesting claim that the emails his office has received were running seven to one in favor of drilling for oil in Southfield. Mayor Ken Siver thinks the idea is outrageous, but apparently, local officials have little say. The MDEQ plans to hold public hearings on the request February 17 at Southfield City Hall. It will be interesting to see who shows up and how residents react. But I will, frankly, be astonished if they are in fact overwhelmingly in favor of having oil wells along Nine Mile Road. 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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Canary in the Coal Mine?

By now, everyone in the nation knows about Flint, the aging industrial city that was switched to water that turned out to be toxic, by an emergency manager whose main priority was to balance the books and save money. Listen Listening... 3:10 Jack Lessenberry But while this wasn't technically a failure of infrastructure, there is no doubt that in many cities, especially older industrial towns like Flint, things like ancient water and sewer pipes, not to mention roads and bridges, are wearing out. Today, too many towns don't have the money to maintain them. We have aging cities all across the industrial heartland with fewer jobs and less money than they did decades ago. Revenue sharing from the state has been repeatedly cut. Meanwhile, they have increasing "legacy costs" from things like pensions and health care benefits past politicians promised city workers when times were booming and revenues were growing. Over the weekend I was thinking about Saginaw and Bay City, Muskegon, other places. All have aging infrastructure. Some could wind up under emergency management. I wondered – could it be that Flint is sort of the "canary in the coal mine," sounding a warning we all need to hear? I decided to put that question to someone in a position to know – Charles Ballard, professor of economics at Michigan State University and the author of an acclaimed book, "Michigan's Economic Future." When I asked my canary question, he told me, "The short answer is yes." But fortunately, economists are seldom satisfied with a short answer. There are many factors in any city's decline. For Flint, Charley Ballard told me, it was a case of massive loss of manufacturing jobs in a very short time, in what was essentially a General Motors company town. The jobs left, he told me; the people who could, followed them. Now, Ballard told me, "what's left behind is a low-income population with aging infrastructure, legacy costs, and an inadequate tax base." It was easy for cities to commit to legacy costs – pension and retiree health care benefits – years ago, when it seemed as if things would go on expanding forever. Perhaps the politicians who made those commitments should have been more prudent. But the real reason things are falling apart is, he told me "our obsession with tax cuts." For decades, we've been cutting the percentage of the economy that gets collected in taxes, Ballard told me, eviscerating state and local revenues. He noted, "if we were to raise the same percentage of our income in taxes that we raised a few decades ago, we'd have billions more a year now." If we had, and had invested that money wisely, "we would have excellent roads and bridges, and we would have avoided the Flint water crisis." Yes, we'd be paying a little more in taxes – but a whole lot less in the costs of broken axles, bankrupt cities and broken water mains. You don't have to be an economist to know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Professor Ballard also said all we would need to conquer these problems is the political will to tackle infrastructure problems, which would be the common sense thing to do. But common sense, once again, is unfortunately, not a very common thing. 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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L&P: In Flint, fix the problem, not the blame

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 wrong 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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Welcoming City?

America always has been, as most of us learned in elementary school, a land of immigrants. Officially, we've welcomed them with open arms, since virtually all our ancestors came to this land at some point in the last five hundred years, voluntarily or otherwise. That's the bright side of our legacy. The dark side is that once our ancestors got here, they too often wanted to keep any more immigrants from coming, especially from ethnic groups different from theirs. Throughout our history, the ugly side of this legacy has manifested itself in the Ku Klux Klan, the Know-Nothing Party, and various other so-called nativist groups. And that ugliness was, sadly, on display the night before last in a prosperous suburban community called West Bloomfield Township, northwest of Detroit. West Bloomfield itself is a melting pot. Its 65,000 people are relatively affluent and diverse. Household income is well over a hundred thousand a year. The population is three-quarters white, one-eighth or so black, but also includes sizable Chaldean and other minorities, including at last count, more than a thousand Japanese. The white population is also heavily Jewish, some of whom fled persecution in the collapsing Soviet Union not that long ago. Not surprisingly, West Bloomfield is one of ten Michigan communities that have designated themselves "welcoming cities" for immigrants. Yet on Tuesday night, hundreds of people packed a board of trustees meeting and loudly urged the five members to repeal the welcoming resolution. Their mood and language was ugly. I heard about this that night from a former student, an absolutely lovely young communications specialist named Anasie, who lives there, is in her thirties, has a masters' degree and three young daughters. Anasie was born in Chicago, to parents who came here from Syria. She was a Brownie and a Girl Scout and a star student. She is brilliant, sweet, and has no use for groups like ISIS, which has murdered members of her family. But Anasie is Muslim, and wears a hijab. She went to the meeting, and told me that she had never been so angry in her life. "I was called a terrorist, a rapist, a murderer, and booed, and the worst part is that about ninety percent of the people cheered." She took video of those angry and twisted faces, just in case they needed to be held accountable. She said, "I feel fearful for my kids' futures." I also heard from a reporter I know who was there. "It was awful. I kept thinking, YOU were refugees, Don't you remember?" she told me. Ironically, the most vocal were old Soviet Jews who shouted that new refugees from the Middle East weren't "classical" immigrants like they were. Perhaps they should look up how Jews have been treated, or read about the refugee ship the St. Louis. In the end, West Bloomfield saved itself from complete dishonor by narrowly voting to stay a welcoming city. Two trustees who should have known better, Larry Brown and Steve Kaplan, disgraced themselves by supporting the bigots. Someday, I think we'll get to where our Muslim citizens are as part of the fabric of our lives as Chaldean and Jewish Americans are now. When that happens, however, we'll have a new challenge: Who will we discriminate against next? 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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Juvenile Justice at Last

Back in 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools, the old "separate but equal" notion, was unconstitutional. Now what would have happened if after that ruling, some state attorney general in Mississippi had argued: "Well, we understand that applies to the future, but we've got some schools that were segregated before that ruling, and they should stay that way." No doubt the Mississippi Supreme Court back then would have backed him up. That would have properly seemed outrageous. Eventually, federal marshals and the U.S. Attorney General would have let Mississippi know in no uncertain terms that they call it the Supreme Court ... because it is. Well, sadly, a version of that happened in Michigan, and our chief law enforcement officer and our supreme court got their knuckles rapped by the nation's highest court yesterday. Nearly four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Miller vs Alabama that sentencing juveniles –kids under 18 – to life sentences without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. That should have been seen as retroactive. Michigan has nearly 350 inmates who got such harsh sentences as juveniles before that decision. If something is ruled unconstitutional, it means the practice always was unconstitutional. That means that every one of those prisoners should be entitled to a parole hearing. That doesn't mean they should automatically be released. Some of them won't be and some probably shouldn't be. But we should have immediately seen that they had the right to have their cases reviewed. But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette didn't see it that way. He absurdly argued that this Supreme Court ruling should essentially be ignored, because it would upset the families of the victims. Apparently he was absent the day in law school when it was explained that even convicted offenders have rights too. Our state was further embarrassed two years ago, when a highly partisan Michigan Supreme Court sided with Schuette and said that while such sentences are unconstitutional in the future, those sentenced in the past don't have to get parole hearings. That was a monstrous injustice – and yesterday the nation's highest court agreed. Those sentenced as juveniles in the past will now have the chance to argue for parole. This is only fair. We know now that the human brain takes time to mature. Who among us would want to have their lives judged by the way we were at 17? Defying the U.S. Supreme Court is never a good idea. Interestingly, that was the message Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to be sending Schuette and those like him yesterday. Four years ago, Roberts was in the minority inMiller v Alabama. He then thought such life sentences for juveniles were constitutionally allowed. But yesterday, the chief agreed that since the court had ruled that way, its ruling was necessarily retroactive. I know something about state attorneys general, having written a book about the nation's longest serving one. In today's Detroit Free Press, an editorial asks, "Michigan citizens would be right to wonder what motivates their attorney general. Is it a respect for the law ... or a stubborn and oft-proven wrong sense ... that has to do more with his politics and opinion?" Sadly, the answer is very clear. 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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The Aftermath

No matter how bad you might have thought the state messed up Flint, the reality is worse. Yesterday, a flood of revelations made that shockingly clear. Ten months ago, a consultant for the city recommended adding corrosion control chemicals to the water, because it was causing metal to leach out of them. Apparently the governor, who is setting a new standard for clueless, never saw it, and Jerry Ambrose, then one of Flint's revolving door emergency managers, ignored it. Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley reports today that State Representative Sheldon Neely of Flint sent a lengthy email to the governor a year ago, saying his city was in danger of civil unrest because of not having clean drinking water. Naturally, Governor Rick Snyder never saw that either. One of his press secretaries did, however. The columnist reported Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said he remembered the letter and laughed, since Neely sent it to an e-mail address meant for regular people to use, not the one for people with power, who might actually get taken seriously. Today, the question is whether anyone will take Rick Snyder seriously, ever again. The picture that continues to emerge is one of a governor reenacting Peter Sellers' role of the spacey and clueless Chauncey Gardiner in the movie Being There. Two nights ago, Snyder agreed to appear on the CBS evening news to discuss the situation in Flint. But when the anchor asked him what the most recent water tests in Flint show, the governor didn't have a clue. He was however, sorry about things. Small wonder that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday announced that it was taking over lead sampling in Flint. They essentially said the state was incompetent and couldn't be trusted. "There continues to be inadequate transparency and accountability," the agency head said in a letter to Snyder. This crisis is going to dominate the news for some time to come. But here's what's bad about that. Certainly it is about time that Michigan and the nation paid attention to the agony of Flint. But the horror is so powerful it is blotting out other news. Detroit's Public Schools are in their worst crisis ever. They owe more than half a billion dollars and are going to totally run out of cash in about three months. The overworked, harassed and underpaid teachers have been staging wildcat strikes to try and draw attention to the deplorable condition of their buildings, which have rats and inadequate heat. But all anyone is paying attention to is Flint. Governor Snyder had a plan to try and save Detroit's schools. But the legislature has no incentive to go along with anything he wants now. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof is instead trying to punish the teachers' union. The schools are likely to careen into bankruptcy, which will carry a far higher cost. Conservative Detroit News business columnist Daniel Howes said it best today: "paying fewer taxpayer dollars now to avoid much larger liabilities later can be a wise, responsible use of public money — unless the people in charge prove too thick, too blind or too insensitive to see it." Our leaders have shown they are all those things. I suggest we brace ourselves. This will be a most interesting and difficult year. 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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