Flint water crisis and 'gag bill' deny citizens transparency and freedom of speech

James R. Fouts, Mayor of Warren

Today the State of Michigan is a state of denial. They deny transparency in the Flint water crisis; Senate Bill 571 denies freedom of speech and denying the public’s right to know. The Flint water crisis is now a nationwide scandal. This was due in large part to lack of transparency on the part of state officials. Switching from Detroit water to the polluted Flint water was done quickly without investigation and without oversight. The decision to go to the more polluted Flint River was made by the emergency manager appointed by Gov. Snyder. The city council gave a formal vote to switch to another water system but did not vote to use the Flint River. That was done by a non-elected official — the emergency manger. No effort was made to test this system before the water went directly to people’s homes. Despite immediate complaints by residents regarding the color and odor of the water, officials merely dismissed citizens as being a nuisance or uninformed. They belittled and ignored all complaints and went full “steam” ahead in April 2014. In a press release in April 23, 2014, the emergency manager assured residents that “in an effort to dispel myths and promote the truth there have been repeated tests of the water” and a state expert said the “quality of water being put out meets all our drinking standards and is safe to drink.”
Switching from Detroit water to the Flint River allegedly saved $1-2 million a year. In 2014, after a record number of complaints from residents and local elected officials, the state responded with the idea that these were just “hiccups.” These hiccups mounted to a growing list of complaints about rashes on the skin and putrid smells, and jugs of water were brought to various public meetings. At a point, the water was found to have bacterial contamination and a disinfectant used to clean the water caused a chemical contamination. At the same time, the GM Plant in Flint found that water from the Flint River had a corrosive effect on their parts and stopped using the Flint drinking water. State officials continued to say the water was not an imminent threat to the public health and that the people were too concerned about the aesthetics of the water.

For almost two years, the state ignored all warnings and data demonstrating that this was a grave threat to the public health. It was not until September 2015, almost 1-1/2 years later, that officials began to acknowledge the problem.

Then, it took the state almost six months more to declare a state of emergency. The bottom line was to save a few million dollars. It will now cost the state several billion dollars to replace the contaminated pipes. These pipes could have been protected by using a chemical that would have cost $144 a day. But they wanted to save money. Now, thousands of children face an uncertain future with lead poisoning of the brain. Legionnaires Disease has taken another toll among adults. Cancer of all those exposed is still another issue. It’s clear that millions, perhaps billions of dollars, will be extracted from the taxpayers to fix this horrendous problem. A problem that could have and should have been avoided had it not been for repeated denials by state officials.

The lesson to learn from this is that the idea that business principles are an effective tool for running government has failed. The effort to save a few million a year and a few hundred a day has been a failure of enormous proportions. Flint, in the short run, is likely to be a ghost town. Official denial usually only found in totalitarian governments led to this unspeakable, but preventable disaster, a disaster in which Flint’s children are left with a dark and dismal future.

Senate Bill 571 (passed in the late hours of the last legislative session of 2015) went from being a 12-page inoffensive campaign finance bill to a 53-page bill. This bill was inserted without any public notice to the communities and school districts affected by it. This bill has been appropriately described as the “gag order” bill.

The essence of the bill is that it would deny local elected and appointed officials the right to comment on any pending ballot proposal 60 days before it is voted on by the public. It also denies basic rights found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, including freedom of speech, free exchange of ideas, and citizen’s right to know. The state law has steep fines and penalties for local cities and school districts that disregard this “muzzle” law.

The alleged intent of this law is to prevent officials from influencing the public. Yet, if local elected officials cannot explain what the proposal is about, it’s likely that the public will vote no on that ballot proposal.

Make no mistake about this state law: It is a declaration of war on public school districts. It’s likely to lead to many mileage failures, which will result in charter schools taking the place of public education.

Cities are collateral damage and if they don’t get mileage proposals passed they will likely become bankrupt and or will be forced to curtail services or layoff employees. That is likely to result in more emergency managers for both cities and schools. Less local control means more potential Flints.

It’s clear that this bill is an attempt to shift the tax burden to the average citizen and reduce most, if not all, of the burden on business. If business pays less taxes, the average citizens pays more either through reduced services or increased taxes. And, in some cases, both.

This effort to shift the tax burden really began in August 2014 when the state-proposed Proposal I for voter approval. This Proposal I which I strongly opposed, eliminated all of the personal property taxes on large industrial corporations. Cities like Warren, Sterling Heights, Detroit, and Dearborn will lose millions of dollars in tax revenue this year because of Proposal I.

Proposal I did the opposite of what the legislature wants to do with Senate bill 571.

It was sold that it would not cost the taxpayer any money ( it didn’t bother to say it would rob cities of millions of dollars ). It said it would reform the tax structure ( it didn’t say it would eliminate the personal property tax on business ). It said it would create thousands of new jobs. So far, there is no proof that it created one job. It made promises to help out police and fire, health service, etc.

State legislators were allowed to mail information on this proposal under the free franking privilege. All the way up to Election Day. Yet, the current bill would prohibit local municipalities and school districts from merely discussing a proposal or sending out any information 60 days prior to the vote.

To add insult to injury, all of these propaganda promises were on the ballot itself. So, the legislature allowed false statements to be made on the election day ballot, allowed themselves to mail out free propaganda. Yet, they would deny local officials to discuss a ballot proposal.

The “gag bill” proponents said they came up with this muzzle on elected officials and local governments because of some abuses. Actually, there have only been three cases cited in the last few years. Hardly a reason to muzzle thousands of school districts and cities because of a few small violations.

The state law already prohibits local municipalities and school districts from using public monies to promote a proposal. Now, we will be prohibited from even informing, discussing, or explaining a ballot proposal.

In the last few years Warren voters have passed three consecutive mileages years, including library, roads, police and fire. In order to get these passed, they were explained to the public. Now, as Mayor, I will be prohibited from explaining or discussing this millage proposal.

To prohibit any discussion or reference to a ballot proposal is to deny the public’s right to know! Leaders were elected to lead, not follow, the danger of ignorance and suppression! Senate Bill 571 is a denial of the basic constitutional right of free speech, a cherished part of democracy. This is the First Amendment that our Founding Fathers included in the Bill of Rights which should never be forgotten.

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James R. Fouts is the mayor of Warren.

 

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