Filtering Democracy: Receivership Board Decision Reminder that Elected Officials Still Lack Full Power in Flint
If anyone thought democracy had actually been returned to the residents of Flint, the Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB) appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder just pulled out its hammer and shattered that illusion.
Despite public outcry, the five-person RTAB last week overrode a unanimous city council vote to place a yearlong moratorium on the imposition of liens on homes with delinquent water bills.
The decision to strike down the moratorium highlighted yet another prong of an anti-democratic receivership law—the same law that created “emergency managers”—that also resulted in the lead contamination of the city water supply and a prolonged, deadly outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease.
Put in place in June 2015, after the last of Flint’s four emergency managers had left town, the RTAB has complete authority to reject budgets, revenue decisions and major contracts approved by the elected council and mayor. Calling it an “advisory” board is really a misnomer.
This point was driven home shortly after the Flint City Council unanimously decided in May to impose the moratorium in hopes of bringing relief to the more than 8,000 Flint families at risk of losing their homes for failure to pay the city’s sky-high water rates. The council’s logic was simple and straightforward: With the city still grappling with contaminated water more than three years since the crisis erupted—even now, the water still has to be run through a filter in order to be considered safe—Flint residents should not be forced to pay for the poison pouring from their taps.
In its 8-0 vote for the moratorium, the city council agreed with the ACLU and the NAACP, which argued in a letter to Flint officials that residents should not have to pay for water that was poisoned as a result of government’s failures.
But members of the RTAB, versions of which were installed in all eight cities taken over by the state under Michigan’s Emergency Manager law, had a different priority.
As was the case with Gov. Snyder’s appointed emergency managers, whose cost-cutting endangered the lives of Flint residents, the RTAB has deemed the bottom line to be its guiding light.
Not that members of the RTAB – only two of whom actually live in Flint –felt any obligation to provide details of their reasoning to the people it will impact. As the Detroit News reported, the board made its decision without providing an explanation, and the board’s director, Frederick Headen, declined comment afterward when reporters asked him about the vote.
So much for transparency and accountability.
Fortunately for the residents of Flint, where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, officials who must answer to voters are looking for ways to maneuver around the RTAB’s decision in an attempt to keep people in their homes.
After the RTAB vote, Mayor Karen Weaver announced that she would not forward liens to the county treasurer’s office, which is responsible for carrying out the foreclosure process. It is unclear whether the RTAB will seek to overturn that decision as well.
In addition to Weaver’s act of defiance, Genesee County Treasurer Deb Cherry, who is not subject to RTAB oversight, promised to help keep people in their homes.
"As long as the city is in a state of emergency and the water is not safe, we will not be approving water liens for Flint residents," Cherry said on Wednesday, June 28, according to MLive.
But Ari Adler, a spokesperson for the governor, defended the RTAB’s as tool for maintaining accountability and for stabilizing communities hit hard by financial distress.
"Gov. Snyder supports the RTAB process and the difficult work that these boards are doing to protect all Michigan taxpayers," Adler said.
Council President Kerry Washington had an entirely different take on the situation, telling reporters that he felt the RTAB’s ruling was an attempt to “punish” the city because the council has balked at signing a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority, a deal the state is backing.
"It's ‘do it my way on the water deal or be punished,’" Nelson said. "I'm disturbed and disappointed the RTAB would not listen to our citizens and council.”
Curt Guyette is investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or firstname.lastname@example.org.