By now, the consequences of the disastrous decision to shift the source of the city of Flint, MI’s water supply are well known. The public outcry generated by almost daily headline coverage of the crisis has led to some urgent and essential actions—such as distributing bottled water and monitoring children exposed to high levels of lead—as well as conversations about the need for a permanent solution. But for that solution to be a meaningful and lasting one, we need to look back to the roots of the problem. 

Where the crisis came from

In the spring of 2013, the city of Detroit and other Michigan communities—including Flint—faced serious budget shortfalls and struggling economies. The governor appointed an emergency manager to guide Detroit through bankruptcy, using powers provided by a law that replaced a measure voters had recently repealed. Anger, distrust, and tensions ran high, for good reason: Critical decisions that would shape the city’s future for decades to come would be made largely behind closed doors, by an appointed official who answered to the governor, not local voters. And the fiscal crises facing Detroit and nearby communities continued to escalate.

Due to ongoing budget problems, nearby Flint was also under the control of an emergency manager. In April 2014, as a cost-saving measure, the emergency manager terminated a contract that had provided the city with clean water from Lake Huron, in favor of sourcing water from the Flint River. Immediately, residents complained about the color, taste, and smell of the water from the new source—and, when the shift led to a hike in water rates, about its cost. State and local officials rebuffed their critics and denied that any problem existed.

Uncovering the truth

Lacking traditional ways of ensuring transparency and accountability—like residents testifying at a public meeting, or local officials taking a public vote—advocates faced a serious challenge: How could they bring attention to the crisis? As part of a watchdog effort focused on state-appointed emergency managers, a grant from Ford funded the work of journalist Curt Guyette, hired by the ACLU of Michigan to investigate how the decisions of emergency managers were impacting financially strapped Michigan communities. That assignment brought Guyette to Flint, where through dogged reporting he was able to draw awareness not only to the water crisis, but also to the lack of transparent and accountable government in Michigan.

Working with researchers and activists, Guyette ferreted out critical documents that validated residents’ complaints and showed a callous indifference to public health and safety. His work drew sorely needed attention to the crisis, and has helped start a national conversation about accountability, transparency, and what citizens deserve from their governments. It also provided fuel for a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and allies against the City of Flint and the state for violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result of his groundbreaking coverage, last week the Michigan Press Association named Guyette Michigan Journalist of the Year.

A broken system

In the short term, we know what to do about the water crisis: Distribute bottled water, and change the water source. But once those most immediate problems are addressed, we’re left with the same system that helped create the problem, and it continues to reinforce inequalities that shape the lives of people in Flint. The use of emergency managers has been largely reserved for cities with majority-black populations, where residents find their lives presided over by officials who are more concerned with financial health than public wellbeing. That’s what led to the water crisis. Emergency manager control has also limited residents’ ability to participate in decisions about how to fix public schools in Detroit and other communities that are close to financial collapse.

Today, the city of Detroit has returned to local control and the city of Flint is on the road to securing a safe water supply. But there is a long way to go in restoring the public’s confidence in government. Not least of all, the law that allowed the disastrous decision about water supply to be made without public scrutiny remains on the books. Efforts to strengthen the voices and influence of local residents persist. Without governance that is truly responsive, representative, and accountable, journalists like Curt Guyette will continue to have lots to report on. So what can we do to rebuild the kind of diverse, engaged civic fabric that is so important to a healthy community, and so necessary to hold elected leaders to account?

Justice, clean water, and good governance

Against the stark background, there is reason for optimism. A new generation of civic activism and engagement is building collaboration among diverse Detroit communities, united by a fierce commitment to securing a better future for this once great American city. Already, we’ve seen activists working together on a plan to return Detroit Public Schools to local control and foster academic excellence, and to educate voters about the city’s new system of district election. And we see emerging efforts to develop leaders and organizations that can achieve change at home and build the networks that are needed to start a new statewide policy debate. All of these efforts can serve as a blueprint for the residents of Flint as they pursue justice, clean water, and the governance they deserve.