By Keith A. Owens
Michigan Chronicle Senior Editor (part 1of 2)
Retiring DPS 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. The Flint water crisis 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 simultaneously fended off equally harsh criticism that he, as Emergency Manager #4, is also guilty for being in charge of a Detroit 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, and 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 disasters 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.
Q: What would you consider your primary accomplishments during your tenure as Flint emergency manager? What remains to be done?
Darnell Earley: 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.
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 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.
Q: As emergency manager, is there anything you believe you could have done to prevent what is now being referred to as the Flint water crisis? Is there anything you did that has not been reported or that has been misrepresented?
DE: As Emergency Manager you are given an 18-month timeline to manage a daunting list of organizational and financial challenges. When a distressed community is declared to be in financial emergency as described in Public Act 436 of 2012, there are usually a number of long-term, systemic issues that need to be addressed immediately and alongside day-to-day management of operations of the city or school district. I relied on the professionals and experts to manage their day-to-day responsibilities while I addressed the long-term issues for turning around the city’s financial condition and returning it to local control. To be sure, I sign Order 15 on June 20, 2014, increasing daily responsibilities to include the operations of the Department of Planning and Development and the Department of Public Works, including the Flint Water Treatment Plant. Reflective of this Order and Mayor Walling’s increased responsibilities, his annual compensation rate was substantially increased, as well.
In hindsight, there is probably more that everyone could have done, from the federal level on down to the street maintenance employees who repaired the unusually high number of water main breaks in a distribution system nearing 100 years old. However, without the benefit of hindsight, one is left to follow the guidelines of the regulatory agencies, MDEQ and EPA that monitor and implement the laws governing water systems. I am confident that we did that. Only after the fact have we all now learned that the regulations, and the guideline protocols that the city were told to administer were inaccurate – by the admissions of both EPA and MDEQ. Their standards for whatever reason were false, misguided, and misleading.
What isn’t being reported is that when every option the staff attempted failed to eliminate the contaminants behind the boil water advisories (contamination from TTHM, total coliform, etc.), I sought the assistance of a professional water engineering firm, Veolia North America, to come in and help diagnose the problems. I was not getting the answers needed to correct the problem. While my tenure ended before the report was released, Veolia commended the significant efforts I and my team had taken to address the issues. However, the report did not speak to the issue of lead contamination, which we now know to be the main issue in the water crisis.
Saying that I, as Emergency Manager, unilaterally made the switch is untrue, and saying that I turned down the DWSD offer to return to their water source in order to save, “a few dollars” is not only untrue but a disingenuous fabrication that ignores the complexity of those decisions which were made in consultation with many others.
First, the city of Flint had already invested millions in the KWA. Second, Flint simply had no money to pay for the costs of continuing to receive water from DWSD once they notified the city that the contract was going to terminate. Third, what Flint really needed as an alternative to consider was a short-term contract, but DWSD would not offer anything less than a new long-term agreement with DWSD over 30 years. The option of a short term contract was not on the table, nor did the state provide additional funding to support such an arrangement, until well into 2015. Those resources were not available to Flint during my tenure. And note, as a backdrop, the Flint residents were paying such exorbitant rates as it was, that they filed suit to challenge those rates. It is inappropriate for one to compound our rationale into a media soundbite concerning our decision to implement a water transfer plan that was already in place. These were not easy decisions, nor was the Flint water crisis foreseeable at any level in April 2014. Anyone who thinks otherwise is engaging in revisionist history by creating a nonfactual narrative.
I am at once sad, angry, and extremely disappointed about what is happening and being reported on what is happening in Flint. I have a special affinity for Flint. I know the community, the people, I have relatives living in the city, and was a part of the community from 2001 until 2004 working as the city administrator, and briefly as the acting mayor to help resolve the first financial emergency. I have worshiped with the people in the community. I relied upon people at all levels of government specifically the MDEQ, the EPA, and the Flint water Treatment staff to advise me and to examine the issues that we faced switching from DWSD to the Flint River. As a part of that group, despite lacking the necessary water treatment expertise, I now wish that I had been more probative in my approach in delving deeper into the explanations I was receiving about what was being done, what needed to be done and when it would be done. As a leader and as a public administrator with nearly forty years of experience managing in public sector organizations in Michigan, and as a public servant, it is my sincere belief that the people of Flint deserve not only an apology, but consistently better and deeper engagement from their government at all levels, and in all governing situations.
Q: In recent weeks a large number of emails have been released that seem to show there was much more concern among some in Gov. Snyder’s administration about the decision to switch to Flint water than had previously been indicated. Gov. Snyder has said that he was not adequately served by some in his administration and was not made aware of these concerns and problems about the potential dangers of Flint water until too late. Were you at any time aware of any of these concerns prior to them recently being made public?
DE: No. My knowledge of the issues contained in the releases from the Governor’s office came at the same time as the general public’s. While we were trying to manage the switch from DWSD to the interim use of the Flint River, both the Governor’s office and the Treasurer’s office were kept apprised of our efforts through regular telephone conferences. At no time were there concerns expressed to me that the project was unmanageable or that the unintended consequences that are now obvious were ever a possibility. And, at no time did any water treatment staff member, Michael Glasgow included, directly alert me to any doubts he or the staff might have had concerning the plant’s readiness or our schedule. Lead contamination was never an issue during my tenure as Emergency Manager.
Q: When you first accepted the appointment to become emergency manager for Flint, what did you believe would be the challenges that would come with the job? What – if anything – were you told would be the most significant challenges for getting Flint back on track? Was there any one aspect that you were told – or that you yourself identified – as being the one key issue that needed to be addressed? If so, what was that issue, and how did you handle it?
DE: The role of Emergency Manager in any city or school district is a very contentious issue. Local units of government as well as school districts are entities of the state, created by the laws of the state. They are not sovereign in and of themselves. This means that the state is obligated to address the emergency financial nature of their operations, in order to make them solvent and to retain that solvency, as it is in the state’s best interest to do so. That is the premise of Public Act 436 of 2012. Make no mistake, this is extremely difficult work—but it must be done. Being an agent of change and a leader is always a very volatile and confrontational issue – Flint was no different. In addition to financial insolvency, Flint, as a distressed community, had a number of high-stress factors that threatened its quality of life. These ranged from public safety, community and economic development, to huge levels of unemployment. The largest challenge, the very reason why Emergency Managers were brought in, was stabilizing the financial condition of the city given its loss of revenue, tax base, population, etc. The goal in Flint was to make the necessary decisions to restore financial health, set the city on a course for sustainability, and restructure the city’s organization so that the resources that it had could be used most efficiently and effectively.
I have always adopted the philosophy that anyone who wants to be a part of the solution is welcome to be a part of my team. Together with staff, we developed a (seven-point) management plan, and involved the Mayor and City Council to the extent they wished to be included. To be sure, under my tenure, the structural budget deficit was eliminated, organizational changes were made, and the city was positioned for return to local control. I am proud of those accomplishments. In the end, that is what I, as an Emergency Manager, worked to accomplish. Making the tough decisions is a requisite ingredient to improve the quality of life in the long-term. When obstacles come up, such as those we have observed with the water contamination issue, I worked diligently to solve that problem, to take the necessary corrective actions, and to move the city towards sustainability. For example, I held weekly meetings with the director, and as needed, other members of Flint’s public works staff, organized and held conference calls with MDEQ experts when boil water advisories were issued, sought and obtained independent analysis from Veolia North America, issued boil water advisories, repaired water main breaks and valves, and flushed the system. Unfortunately, these steps were not enough to overcome the false information fed to us from MDEQ and EPA.
Q: Although it was actually Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz who made the actual decision to switch to Flint water, you seem to be the one who has taken the most heat even though at worst you signed off on what Kurtz approved. Why do you feel Kurtz has not undergone the same level of scrutiny? Are you being hung out to dry?
DE: I think it is important to note that the plan to leave DWSD and go with KWA was a plan long in the making. When I was City Administrator in Flint from 2001 until 2004, the County Drain Commissioner, the city, and outlying communities were already discussing its feasibility. While serving as City Manager of Saginaw, I read of the successful vote of the City Council to join KWA and leave DWSD. I also read of the complexities of the decision-making that would be necessary to implement that plan. Although the contract with DWSD expired on my watch, the plan to switch to KWA and to use the Flint River in the interim was already being implemented when I arrived in October 2013. Prior to my arrival there had been two other Emergency Managers appointed, beginning with Michael Brown (November 28, 2011 – August 8, 2012), and Edward J. Kurtz (August 8, 2012 – July 4, 2013). Michael Brown was reappointed July 4, 2013, until I arrived on October 8, 2013. Gerald W. Ambrose succeeded me from January 13, 2015, until April 29, 2015. If the goal of the investigations surrounding this crisis is to uncover the truth based soley upon the facts about what happened during the course of this project up to the eventual return to DWSD as a water supply source, one would think that the other emergency managers would be subjected to the same level of scrutiny, interrogation, misguided accusations, and false allegations that I have had dumped upon me since this crisis began and throughout its course.
It is no secret that I, as the only African American Emergency Manager to serve Flint, have taken more than of my fair share of criticism than the others. I feel I have been unjustly persecuted, vilified, and smeared both professionally and personally–all because I accepted the very difficult challenge to bring positive change to the City of Flint and the Detroit Public Schools. The decision to make the switch, as I have repeatedly maintained, was made long before I arrived and at different points involved the other three appointees and culminated into a done deal that fell to me to make sure it was implemented. (This would include Emergency Manager Gerald Ambrose, who served as financial director and advisor to all three emergency managers since 2011 before being appointed emergency manager himself.).
There was no information relayed to me at any point that would suggest that the implementation of this plan would cause the amount of suffering that we have witnessed unfold in Flint. Mayor Walling often is quoted that myself and others knew the water was no good. I specifically deny that irresponsible allegation, given that neither the MDEQ nor the EPA ever declared it as such. I’m not sure how I would know that since I don’t claim to know more about these matters than the experts in place to advise every municipality and its water departments in the state of Michigan and in the United States of America on that kind of analysis and conclusion. Moreover, the record is replete with documents showing Walling was an advocate for the switch, but that he continued to advocate and assure residents of water safety despite their complaints. While I heard the complaints, I demanded answers from the Flint water treatment staff, MDEQ, and EPA, and was simply given information that I, Mayor Walling, and others, came to rely upon.
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