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Saturday, August 19, 2017

By Mary Sanchez, Tribune Content Agency

If there was ever any ethical foundation supporting the administration of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, it has been obliterated.

The first duty of any government is to serve it citizens — openly, without favor or prejudice, and in such a way as never to knowingly inflict harm.

In causing — yes, causing — the poisoning of the city of Flint’s water supply, Snyder’s administration have violated that trust. Trampled it, really. And in the process they showed contempt for the people of Flint.

Citizens complained. Experts remonstrated. Yet more experts were enlisted to make a credible case for concern. It didn’t matter. Public health in Flint didn’t matter. What mattered was politics.

In April 2014, the water supply of Flint was switched to the Flint River. It was a cost-saving solution. Flint, as most of us have known since Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger & Me,” is a struggling, impoverished postindustrial landscape. State-appointed emergency managers had been assigned to Flint to address its fiscal problems. So the lake water supplied by Detroit had to go. Too expensive. But the water from the Flint River, a historical dumping site for industrial effluent, wasn’t treated properly, a necessary step to keep old pipes from corroding and releasing lead into the water.

The result was toxic water. People quickly began complaining of rashes and other problems. Pediatricians noted eye-popping levels of lead in the blood of children. Technicians found off-the-charts levels of lead in certain water samples taken from residents’ water faucets.

This went on for 18 months before the water source was switched back to Detroit last fall. United Way of Genesee County, Mich., estimates that 6,000 to 12,000 kids were exposed to lead in the drinking water for an extended period, and that the cost of treating and caring for those poisoned by lead could reach $100 million.

At its heart, the contaminated water crisis in Flint is simple. Everyone at some point — the governor, consultants, legislators, Flint’s state-appointed emergency managers and the various staffers surrounding all of the people with the lofty titles and salaries — discounted the people of Flint.

It wasn’t their children who were exposed to irreversible brain damage from lead poisoning. It wasn’t their families breaking out with rashes. And it wasn’t their minister who stopped performing baptisms, fearing a toxic blessing for newborns.

Those problems were Flint’s, and Flint apparently doesn’t really deserve better.

We get this inkling from 275 pages of newly released emails from the governor’s office. They were only brought forth under duress — now that the National Guard is delivering clean bottled water to Flint. Now that a federal emergency declaration has been signed by the president. Now that the lawsuits are being filed and $28 million in emergency state money had to be offered up.

The governor’s emails show state officials dismissing residents’ complaints as politically motivated and downplaying the findings of outside experts invited by residents to test the water.

Now certain Michigan Republicans are wailing that the issue is being politicized by Snyder’s critics. Well, who politicized it? Principled public servants would have taken complaints from citizens seriously and sought unbiased evidence to investigate — not dismissed them as “political” or otherwise inconvenient.

So, yes, this reflects badly on the Republican governor who supported the system of state-appointed saviors for the poor in the form of inept emergency managers.

Racial and class insensitivity is certainly a factor. Flint is more than 55 percent African-American and has a 40 percent poverty rate. It’s easier to ignore people if they don’t look like you or vote for you.

But that’s not the whole story. Multiple agencies and countless public workers mindlessly marched forward without adequately addressing the uproar coming from the people using the water.

Some of the people snared in the negligence — including the emergency manager at the time the water was switched to a dangerous source — are African-American. Clearly, a lot of people shoved plans forward without questioning, without addressing dangers.

Fingers have been pointing at the emergency manager at the time of the water switch. And that man, now the emergency manager of Detroit schools, points to the previous manager. Technically, he argues, his predecessor made the decision.

The state legislature bears fault too. It twice approved acts to appoint emergency managers for Flint. The second time, it added language to prevent the people of Michigan from using a referendum to take back control of their cities, as they did in 2012.

Snyder, in his state of the state address, attempted a “buck stops here” gesture. “To you, the people of Flint, I want to say tonight, as I have before, I am sorry, and I will fix it,” he said.

The question is, will he — will anyone — learn from it?

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.)

Photo: Flint resident Ruby Adolph carries bottled water and a replacement water filter she received at a fire station in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook