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Flint Water Crisis: Darnell Earley Speaks

Photo: Michigan Chronicle

Retiring Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Darnell Earley has been caught in the crosshairs of withering criticism for more than six months now, targeted by the media as well as a number of community activists and some politicians as well, for the damning role they all claim he played in the Flint water crisis when he served as emergency manager there that has developed into a nationwide story and even a potent campaign issue in the Democratic presidential primary. And as if that wasn’t enough, Earley has also had to simultaneously fend off equally harsh criticism that he, as Emergency Manager #4, is also guilty for being in charge of a school system that critics claim is anti-democratic during a time when the most glaring shortcomings of that deteriorating system – buckling floors, dead rodents in classrooms, classrooms that are either freezing or overheated – have been put on wide display.

Throughout this ordeal, Earley has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, insisting that the choice to switch over to Flint water was the decision of the former Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz and the Flint City Council and that he only followed their lead when he signed off on the decision. But until now, the man who has been at the center of two of the worst crises in Michigan’s recent history has not agreed to go on the record and give his full account of what happened. What follows is the unedited transcript of a series of written questions posed to Earley, each of which he answered in written detail after those questions were first reviewed and approved by his attorney.

  1. Q: What would you consider your primary accomplishments during your tenure as Flint emergency manager? What remains to be done?

DE: My primary accomplishment during my tenure as Flint Emergency Manager was eliminating the city’s structural budget deficit through cost cutting and containment measures. This allowed the city to return to local control under the auspices of a Receivership Transition Advisory Board. In addition, I facilitated the implementation of the city’s new Master Plan, which had previously been developed by a cross section of civic, business, and community leaders. Together, these initiatives brought about increased revenue and a more efficient and effective use of financial and human resources to deliver services. Emergency Managers are brought into a city or school district when financial conditions are such that the unit is virtually insolvent. Once in place, Emergency Managers aim to restore fiscal stability and keep the unit from falling into bankruptcy. We were able to accomplish just that in Flint. Meanwhile, the strategic plan, drafted and adopted by the mayor and the city council, still remains to be implemented. It offers a blueprint for sustaining the city’s financial integrity by addressing legacy costs, organizational dysfunction, better financial management, and reconsideration of its long-term governance structure.

  1. Q: You have said that it was the Flint City Council that approved the switch to Flint water, and that you were simply following the wishes of that elected council when you signed off on the agreement initiated by your predecessor Ed Kurtz. Since then there have been a number of reports that seem to show the Flint City Council actually did not approve the switch to Flint water, but instead only voted to end the relationship with DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewer). Do you still stand by your version of events? And if so, do you wish to make any clarification that might shed light on what the media has missed or misinterpreted in regards to your version of what actually happened?

DE: While much has been made about the actual vote that the City Council took, the plan presented to and discussed with me upon entering office in October 2013 by former Emergency Manager Michael Brown, Public Works Director Howard Croft, and Mayor Dayne Walling, was that the city would leave the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (“DWSD”) once its 50-year contract with DWSD expired. The city would then join the Karegnondi Water Authority (“KWA”), and would use the Flint River, in the interim, for the two years during which the new system was being constructed. Edward Kurtz signed two orders effectuating these actions. Specifically, on June 21, 2013, he signed an Order “[a]uthorizing Approval to Enter into a Professional Engineering Services Contract for the Implementation of Placing the Flint Water Plant into Operation…using the Flint River as a primary drinking water source at a cost of $171,000…” It was also discussed with me at that time that, because the Flint River had served as a capable back-up water system during the life of the DWSD contract, was used as the primary water source for the city prior to the implementation of the DWSD contract, and because Flint did not have the financial capability to sustain the costs for remaining with DWSD during the interim period of construction, the river was the only legitimate and viable interim option for the city. I am convinced that the council voted to go with KWA knowing that the Flint River would serve as the water source irrespective of an actual council vote on that specific part of the plan. I also dispute the accounts that I made any kind of dictatorial edict to force the city into using the Flint River despite pleas to the contrary. The record demonstrates local consensus to use the river, and such use was discussed by the Council and the Mayor. In fact, the lone no-vote from the city council objected to the KWA plan, arguing for using the Flint River as the permanent alternative source to DWSD rather than an interim source. Further, one of the first issues presented to me by the water department staff for action when I arrived was to sell a portion of the water main that carried water from DWSD to the city of Flint to the Genesee County Drain Commissioner, since they were going to be using the Flint River and no longer needed that section of pipeline.

The City Council vote was symbolic, and inherent in that vote was the use of the Flint River – this wasn’t a secret, and is germane to ending the relationship with DWSD given the circumstances. They could not vote to go to KWA without the understanding that they would use the river in the interim – otherwise, they would have no water at all for two years, as there were no other realistic options. EPA and MDEQ additionally approved this river use in the interim. The Council vote was really about upgrading the local treatment plant and acquiring EPA and MDEQ approval. This was openly discussed on a regular basis, without opposition at any time and at any level. It is disingenuous for my would-be critics, such as Mayor Walling, to suggest or believe otherwise. When it’s all said and done, what we really need to do is figure out a way solve the present issues involving not only the water treatment situation but just as important, the aged and ill-repaired condition of the city-wide distribution system of pipes and control mechanisms, in order to prevent similar situations in the future.

Read more at Michigan Chronicle.