By now, you've surely heard about the Flint water crisis. And you probably know why it happened: After the state of Michigan suspended democracy in the impoverished, predominantly African-American city, emergency managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder were given absolute power to make unilateral decisions that resulted in the lead poisoning of the municipality’s water supply.
Congress, the Department of Justice, and the FBI are all conducting investigations. And the ACLU of Michigan, along with the National Resource Defense Council, local pastors and residents, is litigating to force the state to replace lead service lines immediately.
While Flint residents now know that their water is no good, they still don’t know how exactly their water was contaminated— because exemptions to Michigan's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allow the governor and state legislators to keep that truth hidden.
During his State of the State address, Gov. Snyder announced that he would release his emails from 2014 and 2015 as a show of good faith and transparency. But this story began even before Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley signed a 2014 order forcing the city to drink harsh river water.
When government officials know that their inner discussions are subject to public scrutiny, they will be less likely to make callous decisions.
In truth, the decision to use the Flint River was made in 2013, which is why those are the emails a worried public really need to see. But so far, Gov. Snyder has refused to release those 2013 emails — and we cannot use the FOIA law to obtain them.
The state’s FOIA law, which recognizes the citizen’s right to access most public records, is one of the few tools citizens have to hold our elected officials accountable and to bring truth to light. But under Michigan's current exemptions, the governor's office and legislature — the most powerful leaders in our state — are absolved from these requests.
This state of affairs has at least two foreseeable results: Flint residents will remain in the dark when it comes to who is truly responsible for the city's water poisoning, and other government misdeeds will remain secret.
Neither of these outcomes is acceptable.
This is why the ACLU of Michigan has issued two major calls as the Flint water crisis has unfolded:
- Gov. Snyder must waive his FOIA exemption immediately and release all emails relating to the decision to use the Flint River as the city’s water source, including emails written prior to 2014.
- State lawmakers must reform the Michigan FOIA law to eliminate exemptions to the governor’s office and state legislature.
Getting to the bottom of the Flint debacle is an immediate goal in our fight to give its residents justice after our investigation confirmed the ugly truth. But in the long term, amending Michigan's FOIA law is pivotal to ensure future generations of Michiganders don’t experience their own Flints when new governors and legislators take their seat in Lansing. When government officials know that their inner discussions are subject to public scrutiny, they will be less likely to make callous decisions, such as gambling with the health of its citizens to save a few dollars.
Flint residents have seen firsthand how the darkness of secrecy breeds arrogance, insularity, and a sense of inviolability. With absolute power, the city's emergency manager had no obligation to make their decisions public or keep citizens informed of decisions or repercussions. Such authority is contrary to democratic government and should never be tolerated.
The 9,000 Flint children exposed to lead-poisoned water deserve to know how one of our nation’s most severe, man-made public health crisis happened. They deserve to know who in government failed them and how egregiously. And they deserve to know that their government has taken serious steps to ensure a disaster of this magnitude will never happen again.