Some 32 months after former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling raised a celebratory glass and pressed a small black button to switch the source of water flowing to Flint citizens from Detroit to the Flint River, he agreed to share his version of Flint’s most devastating man-made disaster with East Village Magazine.
Since his defeat by Karen Weaver, Walling, now 42, has been living quietly in his 1927 colonial home in the College Cultural neighborhood with his wife, Carrie, an Albion College professor; their two teenage sons; and their rescue dog Bruno, who settled in at our feet during a two-and-a-half-hour long interview in December. He was interviewed by East Village writer Harold C. Ford and Jan Worth-Nelson, East Village editor.
Many questions propelled us. We wanted to know not just about his role in the water crisis, but about his life growing up in Flint, his education, and his path to a position that embroiled him as mayor from Day One in one of the biggest challenges to the city of Flint in its history. Who is Dayne Walling? What drives him? And what does he have to say about the controversies that surrounded him as the water crisis unfolded? We had other questions, too, about his relationship with the water warriors, the emergency managers, state and federal officials, and, as we dug into the history more deeply, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline. As we rounded up the interview and as we offer it here, not all our questions were answered. Ford, who has been actively following the water crisis since the beginning, researched many aspects of Walling’s involvement, developing the detailed timeline included here.
There are no pat answers. As with so many aspects of the water crisis, Dayne Walling’s story is complicated and unfinished.
By Harold C. Ford
“Water is an absolute vital service that most everyone takes for granted. It’s a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply.” …Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, The Flint Journal, April 27, 2014
“It is time for people to stop treating Flint like shit.” …ex-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, Rolling Stone, January 22, 2016
“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world in their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” …Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”, Essays: Second Series, 1844
Mayor Dayne Walling wasn’t the only one tragically enamored by the notion of Flint drinking the water from its namesake river in 2014.
- “This is the best choice for the city of Flint going forward.” …Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, The Flint Journal, April 27, 2014
- “It’s a great system. It’s a great asset the city has. Every drop we pull out, we’re going to clean and put right back in the river.” …Flint Utilities Director Daugherty Johnson, The Flint Journal, April 27, 2014
- “Individuals shouldn’t notice any difference.” …Stephen Busch, Lansing & Jackson District Supervisor, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), The Flint Journal, April 27, 2014
- ”Wisely, Flint ended the relationship with Detroit and accelerated a plan to treat Flint River water until the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline is finished…Let’s raise our glasses to a new direction for the next 40 years.” …Flint Journal Editorial; April 13, 2014
EM Darnell Earley is long gone. Daugherty Johnson resigned as Flint’s Utilities Director. Stephen Busch was suspended from his state job. And all three are facing charges that could put them in prison for years. The Flint Journal is struggling to remain solvent and relevant. And, after applying unsuccessfully for several jobs, Dayne Walling is laboring to find the next step in his lifelong passion for public service after being ousted in November 2015 by political new-kid-on-the-block, Karen Weaver.
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How it began: A public education and a Rhodes Scholarship
Propelled by formal education, the arc of Dayne Walling’s early life bent assuredly toward politics and public service. The son of two career educators, Walling graduated from Flint Central High School in 1992. In 10th grade, he lost his first bid for elective office when the football team’s quarterback was chosen student body president. It wouldn’t be the last time he lost an election.
However, Walling’s hankering for public service was seriously sparked in Dick Ramsdell’s Model United Nations where the future Flint mayor discovered, “I’m a natural speaker.” In 1991, Ramsdell loaded his Model UN students onto a bus and traveled to Washington, D.C. for a peace march during the first Iraq war. “That really piqued my interest in public…and international affairs,” Walling recalls.
“It was all education all the time in the Walling household,” Walling reminisced. So it was on to Michigan State University’s James Madison College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social relations. While attending MSU, Walling joined AmeriCorps, a sort of domestic Peace Corps that engages adults in public service. He volunteered in Lansing neighborhoods with other MSU students and Lansing residents. “That taught me so much about how family and neighborhood dynamics were linked with larger social, political, and economic forces,” he said.
Winner of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, awarded to fewer than four percent of applicants, Walling attended the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. The primary focus of the scholarship is to encourage its graduates to pursue careers in public office. Some American Rhodes graduates include Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, US Senator Cory Booker, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and ABC newsman George Stephanopoulos, director for the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton (himself a Rhodes Scholar). A frequent criticism of Rhodes graduates is that too many “were content with comfortable, safe jobs in academe, in law and in business (and) that too few had careers in government or…public service.” (Rhodes Scholars, Oxford, and the Creation of an American Elite, Thomas J. Schaeper & Kathleen Schaeper, 2010) In his fourth decade, Walling would discover that a career in politics was less than “comfortable.”
The Oxford experience for Walling included a successful masters degree program in urban affairs at the University of London’s Goldsmiths College. Goldsmiths had the advantage for him, Walling said, of being near a local Habitat for Humanity office. With a classmate, he formed a student chapter of Habitat and worked on the first Habitat house in England outside of London. “I always wanted to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” he said.
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Transition to Public Service:
Walling found work of a political nature when he returned to Michigan in the summer of 1998. While most other Rhodes scholars traveled the globe, Walling opted to return to his hometown and was offered the position of field coordinator in Dale Kildee’s successful congressional campaign. The position was suggested to him by David Solis, a colleague of Walling’s father and a consultant for the Kildee campaign. Walling recalled the experience as “part of being educated as to how our democracy works (and) that struck a chord with me.”
Walling’s first full-time foray as a paid public servant was in the administration of Anthony Williams, Washington D.C.’s mayor from 1999 to 2007. Williams, a former DC emergency manager, took over the mayor’s office from the disgraced Marion Berry. In his two terms as DC mayor, Williams was principally responsible for taking DC from a $518 million deficit to a nearly $1.6 billion surplus. Washington Post columnist Colbert King opined, “On his watch, the District underwent its most profound transformation in generations.” (“A Success Story in His Comfort Zone”, The Washington Post, December 30, 2006). Unlike the early 21st century experience in Flint, the nation’s capital city had found a most successful emergency manager who was generally admired by his constituents. Williams may have been Walling’s Yoda, providing lessons that could serve him well later in his public service career.
The next few years included time spent in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota where Walling and his wife worked on their PhDs. She finished hers; he has not, listing himself on his resume as a Ph.D. candidate. Walling also worked at a number of community and consulting tasks including a stint at the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis.
Walling eventually returned to Flint once again and found work as a senior research fellow with the Genesee Institute, a research arm of the Genesee County Land Bank. He said he knew during his time at the Land Bank that he was going to run for elective office. “When we moved back to Flint in the spring of 2006,” he remembered, “I had the intention of running…for mayor.”
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Entry into Flint mayoral politics
In one way, Walling’s entry into Flint mayoral politics was unlikely. The Walling family name was missing from the registry of Flint family political dynasties. That registry would include political thoroughbreds from the Clack, McCree, Gadola, and Kildee clans. Walling agreed. “My family was always involved in the community (but) was not a political family.” Nonetheless, Walling said he saw himself as a problem-solver politician.
Others also thought the tall, articulate, well-educated Walling a good fit for political office. Walling recollects that in 2005, former US Senator Don Riegle pulled Walling aside at an MLK dinner in Flint and asked, “Have you ever thought about running for elected office?”
“The time for you to run is now,” Riegle urged.
Earlier, in 2004, Walling hosted an especially successful envisioning event of the Flint Club. The club, whose mission was to inspire networking among Flintstones no matter where they lived, was the brainchild of Walling. Hobnobbing at a local pub following the event, Walling remembers that Matt Zacks, founder/publisher of the Uncommon Sense alternative newspaper, bluntly chided him, “A lot of us are back here busting our asses. You need to move back here (from Minneapolis) and run for mayor.”
Ironically, it was the behavior of then-Flint Mayor Don Williamson (THE original Donald of politics) that would provide the final push. “It was my perception of former mayor Williamson’s disastrous behavior in office that prompted me to shift my family’s trajectory, move back home, and try to be part of the solution,” he recollected. “I saw more and more how important it was to have good elected officials.”
Walling entered the 2007 Flint mayoral primary, one of seven candidates. Don Williamson and Dayne Walling finished in the top two spots and faced off in the November election. Grizzled, rough-and-tumble Williamson vs idealistic, political neophyte Walling. Though supported by the Michigan Democratic Party, Walling lost; Williamson won.
Besieged by scandal and facing a recall election, Williamson resigned as mayor in February 2009. Following the resignation, Michael Brown was appointed temporary mayor until a special election that summer, when Walling faced off against political royalty in the person of Genesee County Commissioner Brenda Clack. Aug. 4, Walling triumphed and became the 94th mayor of Flint, Michigan.
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Two years later, the State takes over
In the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011, incumbent Dayne Walling bested challenger Darryl Buchanan, 56% to 44%, to remain Flint’s mayor.
His victory was shortlived. At 3 p.m. Walling took a call from State Treasurer Andy Dillon who informed him that the State of Michigan was, effectively, taking over the City of Flint. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s in-your-face public announcement would be made two hours later at 5 p.m., just in time for the evening newscasts and Walling’s “victory” celebration.
Snyder announced that a state review panel had declared the City of Flint to be in a state of financial emergency. Michael Brown, who had been temporary mayor after Don Williamson’s resignation, was named as the city’s Emergency Manager.
“I knew immediately it would be the biggest challenge of my life to figure out how to deal with the state, with total Republican control, and the ability to pass any legislation they pleased, and still somehow serve the city I was just elected to represent,” Walling recollected. “Everybody making decisions in Lansing was on the other side of the aisle and they clearly had their eyes on Flint, Detroit, and other cities that were struggling financially and economically.”
Walling considered resignation but decided against it. “I felt like I would be letting down the community that just went through an election to choose a mayor for the next four years.” Instead, he issued a one-sentence email statement that read, “I look forward to working with Mr. Brown to address the community’s priorities and to secure the city’s financial stability.”
Another former mayor, Woodrow Stanley, on the other hand, was less compromising. He told M-Live’s Kristin Longley, “I’m not a supporter of the emergency financial manager law (and) that doesn’t change based on who gets appointed.”
Michigan has had emergency manager laws for nearly three decades. Public Act 72, the Local Government Fiscal Responsibility Act, was passed in 1990 when James Blanchard, a Democrat, was Michigan’s governor. The act was rarely used throughout the Blanchard, Engler, and Granholm administrations. In 2011, Snyder signed Public Act 4, a beefed up EM law. Michigan voters rejected that law via referendum in 2012 only to see a new bill, PA 436, passed a month later. The undemocratic stipulation included in PA 436 was that the voters could not repeal it.
Flint’s major newspaper, The Flint Journal, fell in line with Republican-dominated state government. It proclaimed in a December 2, 2012 editorial: “The reality is we need the emergency manager’s sweeping powers and political immunity to make the drastic changes and tough decisions to secure the future of the community. There is a lot at stake here, and the emergency financial manager remains our best option.” Critics contended that the Journal’s submissive editorial stance was informed by diminished investigative journalism.
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A Shakespearean drama
The scene was set for a Shakespearean tragedy to be played out in the beleaguered city. It seemed that Mayor Dayne Walling would play Cassio to Governor Rick Snyder’s Iago in a remade version of the bard’s Othello.
Setting: Cassio is a young and inexperienced soldier. Iago is good at manipulating others.
Proclaims Iago: “If I can get him to drink just one more cup / on top of what he has had to drink already / he’ll be as quarrelsome and disagreeable / as my young lady’s dog.”
Conclusion: Iago leads Cassio into committing an action that will disgrace him and, thus betrays Cassio.
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Timeline of a convoluted crisis
The very convoluted story of how an American city with a population of some 100,000 souls was poisoned by their own water system is one involving many layers of government with details still being uncovered. An incomplete timeline* reveals the following:
2011: The first Emergency Manager (EM) of four is appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to take control of Flint’s city government.
2011: A study finds that in order for Flint River water to be drinkable, it would have to be treated with an anti-corrosion agent at a cost of about a hundred dollars a day.
December 2012: Michigan’s Treasury Department, having control over Flint’s finances, narrows Flint’s water source choices to staying with the Detroit Water & Sewage Department (DWSD) or a new source to be constructed known as the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), both drawing water from Lake Huron.
March 2013: Though it has no power, Flint’s City Council chooses the KWA. Internal Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) memos warn of challenges in using water from the Flint River.
April 2013: Flint’s EM signs an agreement to join the KWA. DWSD notifies Flint it will end its water contract with Flint in one year.
June 2013: Flint’s EM hires Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN) to plan the switch to Flint River water.
August 2013: A report from LAN to the DEQ does not recommend the use of corrosion control chemicals.
March 2014: Flint’s EM Darnell Earley turns down DWSD’s offer to continue to buy its water.
April 9, 2014: State environmental regulators approve permits that allow the city to switch to the Flint River.
April 17, 2014: In a memo to the DEQ, Flint Water Treatment Plant supervisor Mike Glasgow warns against using Flint River water “anytime soon.”
April 25, 2014: Flint’s water source is switched after 50 years from the DWSD to the Flint River which is 19 times more corrosive that that from Lake Huron. Anti-corrosive agents are not added as required by Federal law. Flint River’s corrosive and untreated water begins to leach lead and contaminants from old infrastructure. About half of Flint’s homes are more than 50 years old and many have lead pipes or pipes with lead solder.
June 2014: Flint residents begin to complain almost immediately about the quality of their water. For the most part, they are ignored.
June 3 & 4, 2014: Flint EM Darnell Earley advises the Flint City Council that Flint Mayor Dayne Walling would now be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Department of Planning and Development and the Department of Public Works”. Walling tells M-Live reporter Ron Fonger, “The heads of two major city departments will be directly reporting to me,”
June 12, 2014: Mayor Walling tells MLive.com, “I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.”
June 2014 to November 2015: 87 cases of Legionnaire’s disease, a water-borne disease, and 12 resultant deaths are documented in Genesee County. The public will not be notified of this outbreak until January 2016.
August 2014: Flint water tests positive for E coli bacteria. Advisories are issued to boil water.
October 2014: A General Motors engine plant stops using Flint water because of its corrosiveness. Two key Snyder aides raise alarm bells about Flint water. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) alerts Genesee County officials that Flint’s water might be linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
January 6, 2015: M-Live’s Ron Fonger reports that Flint’s Mayor Dayne Walling “…said he maintains faith in the water produced by the city.”
January, 2015: Flint is found in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act. DWSD offers to reconnect Flint to Lake Huron water and waive a $4 million connection fee; Flint’s EM declines the offer. Water coolers are provided to an office building in Flint that houses state workers as an alternative to fountains that provide Flint water.
January 23, 2015: Mayor Walling tells M-Live “…I wasn’t directly involved in the city’s (decision) to use the Flint River as a source…It’s now clear that the challenge was underestimated.”
January, 2015: Walling sends request to Snyder for $20 million in assistance and to the White House for a direct point of contact at the EPA. [Item added at Walling’s request from a follow-up email].
February 2015: Michigan’s DEQ falsely informs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that Flint is treating its water correctly. A city test reveals high lead content in at least one Flint home. An internal EPA memo documents communication between the EPA and DEQ about the high level of lead found in Flint’s water.
March 10, 2015: An email from Genesee County Health Department’s (GCHD) James Henry to Mayor Walling and others warns of a Legionella disease “crisis” in the county and cites the “city’s lack of cooperation.”
March 13, 2015: DEQ’s Brad Wurfel, in an email to Snyder aide Harvey Hollins, notes “uptick in Legionnaires’ cases” in Genesee County, says GCHD’s Henry “is beyond irresponsible.”
March 16, 2015: Snyder Communications Director Jarrod Agen (who will become chief of staff in January 2016) receives information about the Legionnaires’ crisis in Flint. (Nine months later in January 2016, Snyder makes the first public pronouncement of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in Flint saying he learned of it just days before.)
March 19, 2015: An email from GCHD’s Henry cites trouble in getting records from the City of Flint “in efforts to better protect the public.”
March 23-24, 2015: Though it has no authority, Flint City Council votes to reconnect to the DWSD. Flint EM Jerry Ambrose advises against reconnecting due to high costs.
April 24, 2015: DEQ now informs EPA that no corrosion control is in place, two months after reporting otherwise.
April 27, 2015: Laurel Garrison, US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, expresses concern to Genesee County officials about the Legionnaires’ outbreak, “one of the largest we know of in the past decade,” and indicates that city and state officials are withholding information.
June/July 2015: Another memo by the EPA’s Miguel Del Toral shows lead levels high enough at one Flint home to poison a child in that home; Del Toral sounds alarms for months about Flint’s water and the lack of corrosion control. A regional EPA administrator tells Flint’s mayor “it would be premature to draw any conclusions” from the memo. A DEQ spokesman tells Flint residents to “relax.”
July 9, 2015: Using the June 2015 memo by EPA’s Del Toral, Michigan ACLU reporter Curt Guyette breaks the story about lead in Flint’s water due to the lack of corrosion control.
July 10, 2015: EPA Region 5 Director Susan Hedman assures Mayor Walling that her agency is working to provide Flint residents “safe drinking water.”
July 22, 2015: Snyder Chief of Staff, Dennis Muchmore, sends memo to heads of DHHS & DEQ alleging that Flint residents “are basically getting blown off by us.”
September 3, 2015: An email from Howard Croft, Flint Department of Public Works (DPW) director, contends that Flint is now in compliance with the Michigan Safe Water Drinking Act according to the DEQ. Investigators will later conclude that the city’s sampling methods were flawed.
September 8, 2015: Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards and a team of researchers find elevated lead levels in Flint homes and make their findings public. The report states bluntly in caps, “FLINT HAS A VERY SERIOUS LEAD IN WATER PROBLEM.” His findings are discredited by the DEQ and some Flint officials. EPA guidelines say 5 parts per billion (pbb) of lead is a cause for health concern. Many Flint homes test above 100 pbb; one home tests at 13,000+ pbb. Michigan officials manipulate some water test samples for better results.
September 9, 2015: Edwards writes Walling and advises, “…If you want to protect consumers in your city, you should start listening directly to Mr. Del Toral.” DEQ’s Wurfel accuses Edwards of “fanning political flames irresponsibly.”
September 15, 2015: Walling requests $30 million in state funds for improvements in Flint’s water infrastructure. [In a follow-up email, Walling stated, “of that, $10 million was to begin a “healthy homes initiative to address lead exposure, in addition to the $20 million.” See Sept. 26 below.]
September 24, 2015: Flint physician Mona Hanna-Attisha releases a report that finds lead levels in Flint children she tested have doubled or tripled since the switch to Flint River water. Her work is discredited by the DEQ and DHHS as “a little science and a lot of politics.” She reviews and re-confirms her findings.
September 25, 2015: City of Flint issues a lead advisory.
September 26, 2015: An email from Snyder Chief of Staff Muchmore alleges that “Walling went out on CYA (cover your ass) effort due to the election (and) has (no) idea where his $30M figure came from.” [In a followup email to EVM, Walling stated that of the $30 million, “the $20 million was the gap in funds necessary to address priority water projects in the adopted capital improvement plan that were not covered by projected City funds.”]
October 2015: Flint and state officials end their attempts to discredit the Edwards and Attisha studies. Denial, defense, and deflection shift to action. Elevated lead in Flint’s water is confirmed and residents are advised to not drink the water. Genesee County declares a public health emergency. Snyder admits mistakes in the water switch.
October 2015: Flint reconnects to Lake Huron water from the DWSD but infrastructure damage from untreated corrosive water results in continued leaching and high lead levels in Flint water.
November 3, 2015: Karen Weaver defeats incumbent Flint mayor, Dayne Walling by a margin of 56% to 43%.
*(Timeline sources include Michigan Public Radio, CNN.com, Detroit Free Press, Bridge Magazine, M-Live, Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report.)
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Walling: Right person in the wrong place? Tepid leader? Complicit?
Thus, the Republican-controlled state government of Michigan with Snyder leading the charge, took control of Flint’s city government, the water was befouled, and Walling was chased from office by Flint voters. As the crisis played out, three ways of looking at Walling have emerged. Some think Walling was a good person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others deem his responses to the state takeover of Flint and constituent complaints about water quality to be tepid at best. Some believe him to be complicit in the events that ultimately led to the Flint water crisis.
Father Phil Schmitter, a longtime Flint-area social justice activist, criticized Walling for his repeated declarations that Flint River water was safe. In Bridge Magazine, Schmitter addressed Walling directly, “You delayed your action on this issue for an inordinate amount of time. People were told over and over that it was all fine…I no longer trust the city on this issue. And that we have now a lead problem for babies and children is unconscionable.”
Kettering University Professor Benjamin Pauli, who has been involved with grassroots responses to the crisis since 2015 and is writing an academic book based in part on the crisis, told EVM he was “convinced that Walling’s role in the water crisis is what lost him the election, but the vote can also be seen more broadly as a rejection of his governing style. I think residents wanted a leader who would channel their anger and outrage…”
Finding folks upset by the Flint water debacle is not difficult. Former Flint resident and Rolling Stone writer Stephen Rodrick, penned: “Flint doesn’t make me laugh anymore. It makes me want to punch someone in the face.” “I’m angry,” said Walling in his Congressional testimony on March 15, 2016.
But Walling’s anger seemed subdued as he responded to EVM questions about the water crisis in calm, measured, analytical tones. “As a person, my instinct is to work hard to try to fix the problem and I try to channel my anger and frustration into a solution,” he told EVM. “That’s not always the best politics but that’s how I operate.”
Some wished the former mayor had been more vocal in comments to EVM. “I think it was convenient to be able to say, ‘Oh, I can’t do anything because I’ve got an emergency manager,'” opined Laura Sullivan, also a Kettering professor, water activist and now a member, appointed by Mayor Weaver, of the KWA pipeline board.
She further stated, “You can speak, you can talk, you can meet with people in the neighborhoods where kids are sick,” Sullivan said. “The emergency manager was able to push these things through because Dayne was quiet.”
The woman who replaced Walling in the mayor’s office, Karen Weaver, was critical of his leadership style during the city’s emergency. During the campaign, she told M-Live, “I believe it’s a failure of leadership and broken trust. When you know something is wrong you should speak out. I know there’s an emergency manager but it doesn’t take your voice.”
Walling’s reply: “I was working every day”
For his part, Walling told EVM he wasn’t standing still during that time. “I was not ignoring Flint’s water problems,” he implored. “I was working every day…to resolve the crisis: filters, budget adjustments, training, more testing, publishing test results…”
And Walling claimed he did not ignore citizen complaints. “I didn’t doubt that anyone complaining to the city had a problem,” he recollected. “It was a question of what that meant for the system overall…I knew there were concerns people had about the water coming out of their tap but I did also believe that the water met the standards that were applied to every other drinking water system in the state. I didn’t think Flint’s water system was being treated differently.”
What did he know and when did he know it?
So, when did Walling know the water was bad? When pressed by Congressman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, during his March 2016 testimony, Walling replied, “summer of 2014.” If that’s true, then Walling continued to falsely assure Flint residents in his public statements that their water was safe for nearly a year. June 12, 2014: “I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.” January 6, 2015: Walling said he “…maintains faith in the water produced by the city.” An April 2015 tweet, as reported by the Flint Journal: “(My) family and I drink and use the Flint water every day, at home, work, and schools.”
But the public display of support for Flint water that Walling said he most regrets was in July of 2015 when he was asked by a TV Channel 5 reporter to drink the water on television. And he did. “I drank the water because my family and I were drinking the water every single day,” he recalled. “What I learned is that people perceive that I was making a broader, kind of blanket certification of the water’s safety…In doing that I was discounting all the concerns that had come to my desk. What I did was honest, but it didn’t communicate the right thing.” For the record, the water in Walling’s Flint home tested okay.
Despite his public endorsements, Walling claimed that the switch to the Flint River as a water source wouldn’t have happened under his watch. On Sept. 29, 2015 he told Michigan Public Radio’s Cynthia Canty, “I can’t see any scenario where myself and Flint City Council would have supported going back to the Flint River; and that’s probably not based on any science…The perceptions of the Flint River in this community—it’s getting better for fishing and canoeing—but beyond that the idea of drinking the Flint River water is something that most people in this community start off not liking,” he surmised. “I don’t think elected officials could’ve made that decision.”
In his March 2016 testimony before Congress, Walling pointed to a trifecta as causes of the water crisis:
- “The regulators provided false assurances to us about the safety of the water…”
- “Michigan’s financial manager system focused too much on cutting costs without adding adequate safeguards and transparency.”
- “Governor Snyder…discounted local concerns and did not act with urgency.”
EVM took a closer look at these three possibilities:
The water scientists did it
That Flint was under the iron-fisted financial control of state government and their surrogate emergency managers beginning in 2011 throughout the remainder of Walling’s reign as Flint mayor is undisputed. That Walling was officially powerless is arguable. As early as the summer of 2014, some power was restored to Walling by Emergency Manager Darnell Earley. Earley “increased Mayor Walling’s responsibilities under Order No 17 dated June 2014 (and) that Mayor Walling would now be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Department of Planning and Development and the Department of Public Works.” His annual compensation was set at $82,500. The Flint DPW oversees, among other departments, Water Pollution Control, Sewer Department, Water Department, and Water Treatment Plant.
The restoration of some powers to Mayor Walling raises key questions: Who reported to the mayor and what did they report? As suggested by Senator Howard Baker’s query during the Watergate scandal, one might ask, “What did the (mayor) know, and when did he know it?” Walling contended that he was, like so many others, misled by the “water scientists” at the public agencies. He told Congress, “I had my own concerns about the river, was hearing concerns from the public, but I did rely on the information provided from the MDEQ and the appointed public works leadership.” Walling confesses, “I echoed these reassurances to the public, and wholly regret, and will never do again.”
Others aren’t so sure that Walling did not have access to critical information. Sullivan reasoned, “…he could’ve brought in experts…he had the ability to get more fully informed.” Further, she said, “My hunch is that the water quality crisis completely caught him and everybody else involved off guard because they didn’t appreciate that river water is different than lake water. But, they had early clues that river water was very different from lake water; and at that point you can put your head in the sand and not fully appreciate what’s going on…I think that there was…a sort of blowing off of the worries and concerns and the opinions of Flint residents…”
Pauli said he sees Walling, like so many others, as the recipient of misinformation by the “water scientists” and politicians. “Everyone around him…was telling him that these concerns were unfounded, or at least exaggerated, and he more or less bought into this interpretation,” Pauli speculated. “To be fair, so did plenty of other people. It took months of incessant struggle before the water activists convinced anyone that there was something seriously wrong with the water. But Walling ended up in some particularly compromising situations that effectively made him the poster child for ‘the water is safe’ narrative. There is no question that this narrative helped to delay discovery of the lead problem and the eventual switch back to Detroit water.”
Flint activist and water warrior Arthur Woodson is less nuanced in comments to EVM. “All of them are villains, including Dayne Walling,” he said. “Darnell Earley signed an order putting Dayne Walling over public works…(and) Dayne was right there in the thick of things,” he added.
The EMs did it:
As for the concept of emergency managers, Walling conceded, “There is no question that a state government needs the ability to step in and address gross mismanagement, corruption, etc.” Beyond that, Walling had little positive to say about emergency managers.
Walling told EVM that he has less concern about Public Act 72, signed by former governor Jim Blanchard, that allowed for financial intervention. However, two provisions of Public Act 4, the current EM law that replaced PA 72, “went too far.” First, the EM becomes the mayor and the city council; the executive and legislative functions of city government are usurped; checks and balances are substantially lost.
Second, Walling argued that, “We can’t confuse gross mismanagement with structural financial problems. An EM doesn’t solve a structural problem.” He accused Republicans of equating “structural problems” with “the expense of public employees.” “PA 4 invested EMs with the unique and sole ability to impose union contracts without negotiations.” He continued, “No one else can impose a contract on a union; and it’s my belief that structural financial problems in cities are related to broader, regional, economic and social patterns and how that interfaces with our tax and revenue system.”
He concluded, “I want the fix to be with regional property tax sharing, additional shared local income taxes.” He argues that you “can’t blame the problem on a Flint firefighter who retired 20 years ago. He noted that Flint’s problems have not been fixed after four emergency managers; nor have EMs solved the problems of Detroit schools after 12 years of state takeover.
Pauli told EVM, “There is no doubt that Walling was placed in a difficult position by the imposition of emergency management on the city. Even with the best intentions, it would have been hard for him to push forward an agenda that conflicted with the state’s designs. The underlying question here, though, is how to remain relevant under emergency management as an elected official stripped of one’s powers?”
Pauli continued, “I think his belief was that cooperating with the state would be the fastest way to get the city out of receivership. He also happened to agree with some of the reforms the emergency managers were trying to implement. But many residents saw this as ‘going along to get along’…with the powers-that-be.” Pauli argued that a more assertive Walling may have won over more of the voters. “I think what they wanted was an outspoken advocate for the community who didn’t have a problem adopting an adversarial attitude towards the state when necessary.”
It was the Gov:
Rolling Stone writer Rodrick assessed the cause of Flint’s water crisis bluntly when he wrote, “…this man-made disaster can be traced to one fact: Republicans not giving a shit about poor kids as much as they give a shit about the green of the bottom line.” And the head Republican in Michigan throughout the water crisis has been a guy named Rick Snyder who looks in the mirror and sees ‘one tough nerd’ He signed a veto-proof emergency manager law; and he appointed all four of Flint’s emergency managers that presided over the water crisis.
Enter Iago stage right; enter Cassio stage left.
When EVM offered Walling the opportunity to slap Governor Snyder, figuratively or otherwise, he said, “Yes, but I’ll tell you what I want him to do most of all…is seriously address the problem and that still hasn’t happened in full.” Political reality has already slapped down Snyder’s chances for political office after his current term. Once considered a possibility for a vice-presidential spot on the GOP ticket, or a cabinet post in the new Wahington administration, his image has been tarnished, likely beyond repair.
Snyder largely ignored and scoffed at Walling’s attempts at meetings and suggestions for solutions. The mayor wrote the governor a letter in January of 2015 about the crisis; there was no response for nine months. The mayor tried again in September of the same year; again, no response. Shortly thereafter, Walling requested a visit to Flint by the governor because, “This is what governors and presidents do when there’s a crisis and I was disappointed I had to ask in the first place…” he told EVM. Walling received a response, from Flint’s Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, who told him Snyder’s office would “check the calendar.”
Snyder’s Chief Aide Dennis Muchmore saw Walling’s requests as a form of CYA (cover your ass) by a politician in an election year. Walling’s response to the brushoffs from the governor’s office: “I do think from reading the emails that have continued to come out that our community was unfairly treated by the governor and his senior staff because they were viewing it through a political lens. I’ve seen in emails that my calls to address lead in the system were because I was running for reelection and needed a campaign issue…”
Walling continued, “I believed it was my duty as the elected mayor to go directly to the governor…and say nothing’s more important in our community right now than safe water, and here’s what you need to do to fix it, and you need to come see us in Flint. I was angry how the governor’s office and the governor himself didn’t take my requests and our community’s concerns seriously.”
Snyder finally showed his face in Flint in October of 2015 for the announcement that Flint was switching back to Detroit water.
Laura Sullivan laid some of the blame for Snyder’s indifference to Flint on Walling’s political lap. “I think if Dayne Walling had taken the community’s needs seriously, maybe the governor might have taken them more seriously,” she said. “He (Walling) didn’t push to check to make sure (the water) was safe. He got on TV and drank the water.”
Race and politics in the water crisis
A few political realities: Michigan’s state government is monopolized by white Republicans who mostly represent suburban and rural communities. Most large cities in Michigan are controlled by the Democrats and often have large African-American populations. Keen observers of the political scene might agree that these demographic-political realities had something to do with the Flint water crisis. Dayne Walling does.
Walling told EVM, “I think race and class and party politics played a role…The administration in Lansing wouldn’t take our community’s concerns seriously and that’s because we’re a majority African-American community, and are economically disadvantaged, and tend to vote Democratic. The governor’s task force was right to conclude that this is a case of environmental racism and injustice.”
Walling continued, “I didn’t think that when I was on the phone with the governor’s chief of staff, and the governor himself, that they would be discounting what I was saying because 2015 happened to be an election year and I’m one of the candidates.”
Water warrior Woodson, a frequent critic of Flint area politicians, doesn’t believe that Walling ever appreciated that race was a factor in the water crisis. “No, no he didn’t,” Woodson said without hesitation. “Dayne Walling was about Dayne Walling…”
Nonetheless, race and party politics do not fully explain the reasons why public servants would commit misdeeds that hurt people they are supposed to serve. “I still don’t understand how that makes a state employee falsify a report,” Walling told EVM. “There must be more going on that we don’t know…I still don’t accept the premise that because we’re from one party or another, and we disagree on tax policies or social matters that that leads directly to people taking criminal action against our community.”
Tarnished political promise
Like Snyder, Walling is damaged goods politically. The shining arc of public service that bent assuredly from Flint Central High School all the way to the Flint mayor’s office has been dimmed, at least for the time being. A continued life filled with political success and/or public service to citizens may not be easily realized in his hometown.
Sullivan agreed: “I don’t think he could run for office in the Flint area because the things that he did affected the lives of thousands of people. I can’t imagine that being forgotten.”
Woodson resolutely trumpeted, “Dayne Walling better not ever, ever, ever…run for office.”
And there are those that predict the possibility of more turbulence for those close to the water crisis, Walling included. The latest round of indictments announced by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office went upward and deeper into state and local government. Charges were filed against two emergency managers, Earley and Ambrose, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder and two city employees, Howard Croft and Daugherty Johnson, who answered to Mayor Dayne Walling. Attorney General Schuette also announced more indictments are on the way.
Woodson said he sees the latest indictments heading unquestionably in the direction of the costly and labyrinthian deal that created the Karegnondi Water Authority. The KWA pipeline project from Port Huron currently prices out at $285 million. Woodson claimed that both construction companies and politicians that support the project are benefitting. The construction companies get the work and the “local politicians get hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “It was never about saving money to put in the phosphates; they never had the equipment to put the phosphates in; it was about the KWA.”
A March, 2016 Detroit Free Press story supports Woodson’s remarks: According to Mike Glasgow–utilities administrator, later one of the first indicted parties in the crisis—testified at a legislative hearing that the water treatment plant, according to the Free Press, “wasn’t capable of adding corrosion control treatment, not without equipment upgrades the broke city couldn’t afford.” One of the KWA contractors said at the time those upgrades would cost upwards of $34 million.
Meanwhile, Dayne Walling was chair of the KWA Board of Trustees.
Governor Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force pointed its weighty investigative finger squarely at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality:
“We believe the primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Although many individuals and entities at the state and local levels contributed to creating and prolonging the problem, MDEQ is the government agency that has responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan. If failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure.”
In brief, the task force found that MDEQ failed in three fundamental ways: regulatory failure; failure in substance and tone of MDEQ response to the public; failure in MDEQ interpretation of the Lead and Copper rule.
Walling hinted that more indictments are likely. He said, “Given that there have been indictments in two state agencies, it seems to me there has to be a common link higher up.” What, or who, is the “”common link higher up”?
When envisioning Governor Snyder’s role in the water crisis, two possibilities emerge. The notion that a plethora of top aides and department heads knew about the foul Flint water, but Snyder didn’t, could mean that: 1) Snyder is an incompetent administrator, or; 2) Snyder is truth-challenged. Walling agreed: “I don’t know what Governor Snyder knew, when, but there has to be some higher link between employees in the DHHS and employees in the DEQ. It is hard to imagine how this many different public employees took this action without there being higher action.”
As for pushing the black button, Walling told EVM, “I will regret that every day of my life for the rest of my life.”
He continued: “I certainly regret Flint using Flint River water. I can go back in time and know why I publicly supported it at the time, given what I knew then; but the water crisis was an extremely difficult learning experience for me and I know that I’ll make decisions differently for the rest of my life because of what’s happened to our community.”
As for politics and government, Walling said, “My faith in our government, even state government, has been shaken. This is about broken trust.”
“They messed with the wrong city. They messed with the wrong people.” Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, speaking on Michigan Public Radio’s Stateside.
Editor’s note: Following initial publication of this story, Dayne Walling offered further information which has been added to the report — under the timeline for January, 2015 and September, 2015. He offered the following: “As I stated, I worked hard on water every day as many others have as well and we are still having to fight for what we need.”
EVM Writer Harold C. Ford wrote for the Flint Voice and the Michigan Voice many years ago. He is retired from 43 years as an educator in the Beecher Community Schools, where he was the founder and first executive director of the Beecher Scholarship Incentive Program funded by the Ruth Mott Foundation. His return to investigative journalism is part of his stated “bucket list.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson is retired from a quarter century of teaching writing at the University of Michigan – Flint. She is the author of the novel Night Blind, based on her Peace Corps experiences. Her writing in many genres has appeared widely, most recently in Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology and in The MacGuffin and Midwestern Gothic. A 2016 poem published in the Exposition Review has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She can be reached at email@example.com.