By Paul Rozycki
Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships
Success has a thousand fathers. Failure is always an orphan.
-attributed to Tacitus and Count Galezzo Ciano
[Editor’s Note: While these are Paul Rozycki’s personal views, they are shared by the EVM editorial board.]
With Dr. Karen Weaver’s decisive victory in Flint’s recent mayoral election, most of us might hope that the water issue would be taken care of as well. Unfortunately, that won’t be the case. As much as we’d like to move on to something else, this issue be with us for some time. And we may be the first of many cities to face a serious water problem.
There are many lessons to be learned from Flint’s ongoing water crisis, perhaps too many to list, but the most important lesson is that trust matters—and once lost, it’s a long and difficult process to restore it.
That loss is reflected on many levels and was almost certainly a major factor in Weaver’s win and Mayor Walling’s defeat.
Trust in the competence of all government is called into question.
Trust in the national government?
On the national level, trust in the ability of government to do the right thing has been slipping for decades, going back to Watergate and the Vietnam War. The most recent examples include Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, and Congress’ inability to do much of anything at all. Today much of the appeal of a Donald Trump or a Ben Carson is that they aren’t part of the government.
Trust the governor?
On the state level, the trust in Governor Snyder and his wide use of Emergency Managers has certainly fallen to a new low. Yes, he and the state legislature finally came around with some aid, but it seemed a day late and a dollar short. It’s fair to ask, as many have, that if this same crisis had happened in Republican Birmingham or upscale Ann Arbor would the state’s response be as slow and halfhearted as it has been for Flint?
Trust in the experts?
Similarly we’ve lost trust in the many state (and national) experts who told us that everything was just fine with the water, and generated pages of precise, apparently scientific numbers, to back up that assertion. These were to be neutral, non-partisan authorities who were supposed to tell us when the water was good or bad. Only after months of reassuring reports, backed up with charts and numbers, did we learn that studies were flawed, designed for smaller sized cities or otherwise misleading. A few months down the road, when they come out with a new report telling us everything is now all right, will we trust them?
Local leaders lose trust?
On the local level, there were too many leaders who went along with the experts and the powers that be, and reassured us that all was well. Much more disturbing, it appears that those assurances continued even after they knew better. Will we be able to trust them when they finally tell us that everything has been fixed and that we can drink the water?
Failure is always an orphan
Perhaps the most damaging of all was the ‘blame game’ where governors, emergency managers, mayors, candidates, council members, and others were quick to point the finger at someone else saying ‘it’s the other guys fault.’ (It should also be noted, that some of today’s harshest critics of using Flint River water were strong advocates of the same idea a few years ago.)
A few strong leaders
Yet, not everyone is a villain. There were at least a few individuals and groups who had the courage to stick with their convictions even against heavy pressure.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH program director for the pediatric residency at the Hurley Children’s Hospital at Hurley Medical Center in Flint.deserves much credit for standing up against intense pressure, when she discovered the elevated levels of lead in Flint children. Her courage should be an inspiration to all.
State Senator Jim Ananich and Congressman Dan Kildee deserve credit for pressing for a full examination of the Flint water crisis by the Environmental Protection Agency and not letting the issue die.
Finally, the Flint Coalition for Clean Water and all those groups and individuals who raised protests deserve credit as well. They may have made noise standing in the back of the room and waiving around their bottles of dirty water, may have been disruptive, loud and perhaps even wrong on occasion, but they kept the issue alive when no one else was listening.
Is Flint ‘the canary in the coal mine?’
If there is anything good to come out of our current crisis it might be that we are the ‘canary in the coal mine’ and that the water problems and infrastructure problems we are facing in Flint are likely to be state-wide and nation-wide issues in the years to come. Let’s hope other officials will learn from our mistakes and handle the issue with more openness and trust.
Let’s also hope that Mayor Karen Weaver’s first job will be to rebuild some sense of trust in all those institutions that should have served us better. She will be facing a challenging task. Turning on the faucet to clean water may be easier than restoring the flow of trust. Restoring that trust will be a big job, much bigger than replacing pipes, turning valves and adding filters—but just as important.
Meanwhile, I’ve bought another case of bottled water to keep under the kitchen table.
Paul Rozycki is a retired professor of political science from Mott Community College. He has lived in Flint since 1969 and has been involved with and observed Flint politics for many years. He is author of Politics and Government in Michigan (with Jim Hanley) and A Clearer Image: The History of Mott Community College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.