Problems in Detroit, Flint show rift over emergency managers

Darnell Earley was clearly one of Snyder’s go-to men

By Corey Williams
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — Darnell Earley didn’t come up with the plan to channel corrosive river water into Flint’s old lead-lined water pipes, causing a health emergency. And he certainly can’t be blamed for the Detroit school system’s decaying facilities and wrecked finances, which have prompted teacher boycotts this month.

But the 64-year-old budget expert was in charge of Flint’s city government and the Detroit schools at key points in their recent turmoil, and that has made him a focal point of anger about Gov. Rick Snyder’s use of “emergency managers” to temporarily run public entities in Michigan that are hopelessly in debt.

Earley, who had a 40-year career in public administration in Michigan, was one of seven outside controllers appointed in the last five years to fix foundering cities or school districts, and he was clearly one of Snyder’s go-to guys, getting two of the toughest cases in Flint and the Detroit schools.

In October 2013, he took over control of Flint, a majority black city of 100,000 north of Detroit where more than 40 percent of the population was below the poverty line. He was the third of four managers sent in to cut costs and deal with the city’s $13 million deficit.

Earley seemed like a perfect fit for the blue-collar city. He grew up as one of nine children in an African-American family in Muskegon Heights, a small community along Lake Michigan, the son of an auto factory worker and a homemaker. He worked his way through college at Grand Valley State University and earned a master’s degree in public administration from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

He also knew Flint. He worked as city administrator in 2001 and served a short stint as Flint’s temporary mayor in 2002, as part of a career that also included a stint as city manager in Saginaw.

However, the personal connections didn’t defuse the tension in seizing control of all fiscal decisions from locally elected officials.

“They don’t listen to nobody,” longtime Flint City Councilman Scott Kincaid said of emergency managers. “They don’t care about the community. They just care about fixing the finances.” Kincaid and others said the managers’ tendency to ignore local complaints played a role in the water fiasco, since residents had complained about taste and color of the water.

Whenever Flint City Council members wanted to speak with Earley, they would have to get appointments, said Councilman Wantwaz Davis.

“We couldn’t just walk in his office,” Davis said. “He’s egotistical, very arrogant. Whenever he sets his mind to something, it’s going in that direction.”

Another emergency manager, Louis Schimmel, who temporarily ran the cities of Hamtramck, Ecorse and Pontiac, defended Earley, saying bruised feelings are unavoidable.

In a city like Flint, he said, “You’re dealing with multiple problems and you don’t have very much help.”

During Earley’s 16 months as Flint’s emergency manager, the city went ahead with a plan to save money by switching its water supply from the Detroit system to a new pipeline consortium, and to use Flint River water until the new pipeline was ready. However, anti-corrosion agents were not added to the salty river water, causing metal leaching in city pipes and dangerously elevated lead levels among some residents. The state declared an emergency and began distributing bottled water.

Earley declined to speak to The Associated Press, but he defended his work Sunday on WDIV-TV.

“I don’t look at it in terms of blame. ... I came along at a time when this project was already underway and it fell to me to oversee implementation of it,” he said of using the river. “More facts like that need to be sought out instead of just trying to find someone or something to blame for it.”

But some local officials say he shares in the responsibility.

“Darnell and the people in public works and finance in the city believed they could save between $6 million and $8 million. ... And this is what we’ve got because of that,” said Kincaid, who has served on the city council for 30 years.

Snyder praised Earley when he announced his appointment as emergency manager for Detroit’s schools a year ago. “Darnell Earley has a track record of success and can guide the district as we work collectively and collaboratively to turnaround the fiscal crisis and ensure a quality education for the city’s school children that they need and deserve.”

But teachers union officials say he hasn’t responded well enough to their complaints about leaky roofs, rodents and mold in school buildings. Snyder has proposed a legislative bailout for the schools. Earley has said he understands teachers’ frustrations, but criticized their organized sick-outs.

“He would say ‘yeah, yeah,’ but he never did anything to diffuse what was going on or showed teachers that he respected them,” said Detroit Federation of Teachers President Ivy Bailey.
“You send Mr. Earley from Flint to Detroit. He mismanaged Flint and now he’s mismanaged Detroit’s schools,” Bailey said. “That is horrific.”


Ex-prosecutor to spearhead investigation into Flint water

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A former prosecutor and a retired head of the Detroit FBI will play key roles in an investigation into Flint’s water crisis as part of an effort to seek answers and prevent potential conflicts of interest in the ongoing probe, Michigan’s attorney general announced Monday.

Bill Schuette said Todd Flood, a former assistant prosecutor for Wayne County, which includes Detroit, will spearhead Schuette’s investigation and serve as special counsel. He’ll be joined by Andy Arena, who led Detroit’s FBI office from 2007 until 2012.

“We will do our job thoroughly and let the chips fall where they may. ... This investigation is about beginning the road back, to rebuild, regain and restore trust in government,” Schuette said in a statement ahead of a news conference scheduled for Monday morning.

The attorney general’s office represents both the people of Michigan and state government, so Schuette said the move will prevent conflicts between him and his investigation team and the team defending the governor and state departments against water-related lawsuits.

Lawsuits against Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the state will be supervised by Chief Deputy Attorney General Carol Isaacs and Chief Legal Counsel Matthew Schneider. Schuette noted there was a similar effort during Detroit’s bankruptcy case to ensure that conflicts of interest were avoided.

Flood, who currently is a lawyer in private practice handling both criminal and civil cases, said it’s a “privilege to have this opportunity to serve.” Arena currently heads the Detroit Crime Commission, a nonprofit aimed at reducing criminal activity. Both will report to Schuette.

“Flint families and Michigan families will receive a full and independent report of our investigation,” Arena said.

Schuette, a Republican, announced Jan. 15 he would investigate what, if any, Michigan laws were violated in the process that left Flint’s drinking water contaminated with lead.

The financially struggling city switched from Detroit’s municipal water system and began drawing from the Flint River in 2014 to save money. The water wasn’t properly treated to prevent lead from pipes from leaching into the supply.

Residents have been urged to use bottled water and to put filters on faucets.
 

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