To learn more about how how Flint ended up with an unelected emergency manager, we spoke with Flint City Councilmember Eric Mays. Eleven months ago, in March 2015, the City Council voted seven to one on his resolution to stop using water from the corrosive Flint River. The city’s unelected emergency manager Jerry Ambrose rejected the proposal. He said, “It is incomprehensible to me that (seven) members of the Flint City Council would want to send more than $12 million a year to the system serving Southeast Michigan, even if Flint ratepayers could afford it. (Lake Huron) water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.”
Watch more from the Democracy Now! special report “Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City”
AMY GOODMAN: What is Michigan’s emergency manager law, Public Act 436, which was pushed through after a similar law, P.A. 4, was defeated in a two-to-one statewide referendum? We went to City Hall to find out.
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: Eric Mays, First Ward city councilman for the city of Flint. I represent the First Ward, which is the farthest north end of the city of Flint, about 11,000 residents. I would say it’s about 96 percent or so black. And, you know, we’ve got all the issues—high crime, abandoned houses.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how the emergency manager worked and how the decision was made to switch to the Flint River.
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: If you look at Public Act 436 and even Public Act 4, whenever a city was in so-called, quote-unquote, or, quote, “emergency financial distress or financial trouble,” unquote, whoever defined that and however the city got there with a general fund budget deficit, the governor would appoint a review team, and the review team might recommend an emergency manager come in. In my opinion, some of that was created because the governor took revenue sharing away from cities and helped create financial distress—about $55 million at some point from the city of Flint.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait. You’re saying they take the money from Flint, and they send it elsewhere in Michigan.
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: In this case, our money was taken from Flint, Detroit and other municipalities, and the governor then boasted in some cases a surplus for the state. And so, that’s why we say in some cases the governor helped create the deficit and then would send in a emergency manager.
AMY GOODMAN: So explain what happened. How was the decision made?
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: In about April of 2014, I got a notification that it was some activity going on over at the water plant. And when I got there, the emergency manager was there, Darnell Earley. The mayor was there. Councilpeople were there—I was one of them. I’ve seen other officials there. The police chief was there. And when I caught on to what was going on, it was a countdown—10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one—and then the button was pushed, and one light went on red, and you had green. And, you know, it’s recorded and documented.
And so, then, after that, there was a gathering in the plant, because this button, it’s pushed outside in the back somewhere, and then we walked from there, and then they did a toast, and, you know, to show we’re drinking now river water. And because of the stigma of the river, I wouldn’t really—I held it up, but I didn’t feel comfortable guzzling it down with them. And they was going, “Hey, you didn’t drink.” And I was like, “Oh, you know.” So, you know, that’s kind of what went down. So I was leery from the beginning. But I had no idea. I knew nothing about some of the bacteria. I knew nothing about TTHMs, trihalomethanes. I knew nothing about lead, and I knew nothing about possible Legionnaires.
AMY GOODMAN: So you introduced a bill on March of 2015 to say return to Detroit’s water. What happened to it?
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: I put a motion on the floor, and that motion passed, seven or eight to one, to return to the Detroit water. And I think then-President Josh Freeman was the only no vote. And so, the emergency manager—I think it was then-emergency manager Ambrose—I think he talked publicly like that was not something that was smart or shouldn’t have been done. He used some distinct words.
AMY GOODMAN: He used the word it’s “incomprehensible” that your City Council voted seven to one to go back to Detroit’s water. I have the quote of the emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, who said, “Flint water today is safe by all [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] standards and the City is working daily to improve its quality. … It is incomprehensible to me that 7 members of the Flint City Council would want to send more than $12 million a year to the system serving southeast Michigan, even if Flint rate payers could afford it. [Lake Huron water] from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.”
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: Well, he was wrong. In my opinion, he was wrong. And it was not meeting all the EPA standards. We found out Curt Guyette with the ACLU did some good research. And, you know, he discovered to me that the city of Flint was submitting samples of water where they had been pre-flushing, which you shouldn’t pre-flush when you’re testing for certain things. The water should set at least for six hours, and then you test. We found out they were testing maybe certain places that didn’t have lead pipes. And so, there was some, what we call, skewed testing samples.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Flint City Councilman Eric Mays. He sponsored the legislation to switch Flint back to Detroit water half a year before the governor finally allowed the city to switch back.