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Lessons for local governments in Flint water crisis, professor says

Monday, January 25, 2016

LAWRENCE — The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has shed light on issues that many local governments are facing today or likely could in the future, according to a University of Kansas researcher who studies public management.

"Even though it's centered in Flint, the same lessons apply broadly," said Heather Getha-Taylor, associate professor in the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration. "The challenge is always about addressing short-term financial needs while still being strategic and being mindful of how our choices today impact our future."

Tap water in the city recently contained enough lead that would show up in people's blood levels, an amount that could cause health and developmental problems in children. From 2011 to 2015, Flint was in state receivership — like several entities in Michigan that experienced difficult economic times — and four emergency managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder controlled the city's finances.

During that time, the city began drawing its drinking water from the polluted Flint River instead of Lake Huron. According to national news reports, city and state leaders belittled complaints about the water for months before finally declaring a public health emergency.

Getha-Taylor said local governments do have to respond to emergencies, such as fiscal crises, but if the response comes at the expense of future problems, it warrants a step back.

"Especially in the aftermath of the recession, the reality of fiscal constraints continuously becomes an emergency," said Getha-Taylor, who has co-authored nearly 20 journal articles on public management and collaboration. "Because we have not seen a full recovery at all levels, that's always going to be there. However, I think we have to ask the bigger question: What is keeping us from thinking long term? Is it resources? Is it capacity? Is it the time and attention to strategic planning?"

The receivership in Flint and other Michigan process could also shed light on the importance of accountability, especially if emergency managers are not directly accountable to voters.

"Should you have to sacrifice your long-term vision for continually putting out fires? For me, management is a major reason why we're seeing some of these issue," Getha-Taylor said. "We have to invest in management just like we have to invest in infrastructure."

Reports about city and state officials ignoring resident complaints about the water should be looked at closely, said Getha-Taylor, who was lead author of a 2015 study on best practices of training for city supervisors and a 2014 article on the importance of government leaders collaborating with business and nonprofit organizations on natural resource management.

She said local governments should make sure they have participatory mechanisms in place for residents to feel comfortable engaging with public employees and elected officials.

"It's a mindset. How do public employees view their relationship with citizens? Do they see themselves as experts who are removed from the citizenry? Or do they see themselves in partnership with the citizenry to solve our shared challenges?"

In addition, any potential investigation or lessons from the Flint crisis should examine potential social equity issues in Michigan. Also many communities will face water issues in the future, either due to drought or the threat of pollution, she said. The public tends to expect transparency when dealing with drinking water.

"It's a management issue. It's an accountability issue," she said. "And of course it's about the connection between government and its citizens."

Photo: View of the downtown skyline from the Flint River. Credit: WikiCommons.


Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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