Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
Governor Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force has released its final report, which begins with these fateful words: “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.” The final report places much of the blame for the Flint water crisis directly at the feet of state government, including the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and the governor’s office itself.
However, the final report is not limited to discussing the failures of state agencies. Included among its 44 official recommendations, the report also calls for an “investigative review of the development and approval of the Karegnondi Water Authority [KWA] and of the City of Flint’s commitments to KWA water purchases.”
KWA was incorporated in 2010 to provide water from Lake Huron for Genesee, Lapeer, and Sanilac counties. Under the KWA articles of incorporation, the authority is governed by a board of five initial incorporators, consisting of the Genesee County Drain Commissioner, Lapeer County Drain Commissioner, Sanilac County Drain Commissioner, Mayor of Flint, and Mayor of Lapeer. In addition to serving as an incorporator and board member, Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright also serves as KWA’s Chief Executive Officer.
In turn, the five incorporators are required to appoint additional board members from each municipality that contracts to purchase water from KWA. Curiously, even though KWA was originally established to provide water for communities in Genesee, Lapeer, and Sanilac counties, only Genesee County and the city of Flint have ever executed contracts to purchase KWA water. It is now unclear exactly when the KWA pipeline will be completed and the authority will begin providing water to these purchasers.
As Chief Executive Officer, the Genesee County Drain Commissioner has the authority to hire and fire employees, manage KWA’s finances, and supervise and oversee the construction of the KWA pipeline. Under the KWA bylaws, the Genesee County Drain Commissioner (acting as Chief Executive Officer) also has the authority to sign all contracts on behalf of the authority—including contracts for the purchase of KWA water.
Pursuant to Michigan’s County Public Improvement Act, 1939 PA 342, the Genesee County Drain Commissioner is designated to serve as Genesee County’s “county agency,” making him responsible for managing and operating county utilities. Under the statute, the “county agency” is empowered to execute all contracts for the purchase of certain goods and services—including water—from other governmental entities and public utilities. The “county agency” is also empowered to set rates, fees, and assessments for county water service.
What does this all mean? It means that the Genesee County Drain Commissioner is responsible for both selling and purchasing KWA water. In essence, he contracts with himself for the portion of KWA water that will be sold to Genesee County. How many public utilities do you know of in which the same person signs multimillion-dollar contracts as both the seller and the buyer?
As one of the driving forces behind the establishment of KWA, and now its Chief Executive Officer, the Genesee County Drain Commissioner has created a veritable fiefdom of his own. In addition to his roles as county drain commissioner and “county agency,” he now oversees a large water-service bureaucracy with municipal borrowing power, a substantial budget, many lucrative contracts and subcontracts, and very little outside oversight. So it should come as no surprise that the Genesee County Drain Commissioner was also instrumental in convincing the city of Flint to contract for the purchase of municipal water from KWA.
Make no mistake: Flint’s decision to purchase water from the nascent KWA was entirely separate from the emergency manager’s decision to use the Flint River as an interim drinking-water source. However, the fact remains that if Flint had never decided to purchase its water from KWA, the emergency manager’s decision to use the Flint River as a primary drinking-water source would not have happened. And as we all know, if the corrosive Flint River water had never been used, the Flint water crisis would not have occurred.
In sum, the creation of KWA, followed by Flint’s decision to purchase KWA water, set in motion an unfortunate series of events that ultimately made it financially and politically expedient for a state-appointed emergency manager to draw drinking water from the Flint River. Now the people of Flint, through no fault of their own, are forced to live with the tragic consequences.
As the governor’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force has aptly concluded, the primary blame for the Flint water crisis rests with the state of Michigan, its dereliction of duty, and its unjust emergency-manager law. But it cannot be gainsaid that the decision to buy municipal water from KWA made the crisis possible.
An investigation would be helpful in answering some lingering questions. Was it financially prudent to construct KWA? Was it a good idea for Flint to contract with KWA? Was KWA really necessary? And if it was, why didn’t the emergency manager obtain Flint’s drinking water from a safer source pending KWA’s completion? These questions demand answers; I hope we learn more in the weeks and months ahead.