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How Snyder’s chief of staff wrestled with Flint, with few victories

Deep in the more than 10,000 pages of Flint-related emails released last weekend by Gov. Rick Snyder, there is a fine-print, small-font spreadsheet of Dennis Muchmore’s workload.

As chief of staff for the governor, Muchmore was responsible in 2015 for no fewer than 76 “priority projects,” according to that document.

Possible 2016 ballot issues. An agricultural labor shortage. Speed limits in the Upper Peninsula. The Michigan Prescription Drug Task Force. Issues involving the transport of crude oil by railroad. Charity gambling. Regional transit issues. A Belle Isle Conservancy project. Medicaid. Regional projects ranging from Wayne County to Battle Creek to Benton Harbor. Something called “liquor stores and gas pumps." Another item called “Jobs for Scott and Nancy.”

And … “Flint water issues.”

A dominant question in the Flint water crisis is how key aides in the Snyder Administration could raise early red flags about the city’s water yet not coax answers or solutions from state government before lead poisoning became a full-blown public health crisis. One lens through which to view that question is the emails and decision making of the governor’s long-time chief of staff. The records offer a window into a leadership culture where, for years, aides constantly juggled innumerable policy balls. And yet in the crucible and complexity of the emerging Flint crisis, none among numerous vastly experienced Snyder aides found the capacity to arrest the nightmare that gripped Flint, and now critically wounds a governorship.

In the high-minded times of early 2011, as Rick Snyder completed an unlikely climb to the governor’s chair, he urged his appointees to work in “dog years,” thereby implying he wanted to spur change in Michigan at roughly seven times normal human speed. As chief of staff, Muchmore was one of the key people in charge of the day-to-day work.

They got off to a fast and sometimes controversial pace. Snyder and team ripped up the state’s much-hated business tax. They led the nation in expansion of early childhood learning programs. They wrote special messages and launched task forces on dozens of policy issues. They signed Right to Work and various forms of controversial hot-button social issue legislation not originally on their agenda. They passed state budgets on time, grew the state’s rainy day reserves, and addressed long-term pension and health care headaches. They helped negotiate Detroit in and out of municipal bankruptcy in a finance-minded motivation to get the city back on its feet. They won re-election just as the Flint crisis began to grow. And, while riding a fortuitous economic recovery from the Great Recession, they sent state-appointed emergency managers into Michigan’s most financially troubled cities.

Like Flint.

By his final days in Snyder’s office, after a year of Flint frustration, Muchmore, whose emails concerning the Flint crisis have been among the most heavily scrutinized, seemed to have had enough of dog years.

“Welcome to the job,” Muchmore wrote to his replacement, Jarrod Agen, as he cleaned out his office at the end of 2015. “It’s one of those where tomorrow you’ll have another set of even more ugly decisions.”

Ugly decisions and dilemmas about Flint plagued Muchmore throughout 2015. In the end, emails indicate, the battle left him questioning himself.

“Of course, I have a lot of complaints about myself and this Flint thing,” Muchmore wrote to a state Treasury Department colleague in October. “If I had acted more quickly on some of (Flint ministers) complaints we at least could have had a more robust discussion.”

February 2015: ‘We can hardly ignore the people of Flint’

In all the thousands of pages of state email records released in recent weeks, the governor himself says very little. To this day, Rick Snyder’s day-to-day thoughts as the crisis unfolded remain largely a mystery. But Muchmore said a lot. And he attempted to lead numerous stopgap measures to deal with Flint. But he wasn’t able to lead state government to solutions before the Flint water crisis mushroomed into a public health and public confidence crisis of epic proportion.

To what degree Muchmore (or other aides) broached possible solutions directly with the governor before fall 2015 remains unclear, at least from the emails released to date.

In February 2015, after Flint residents held up jugs of smelly brown drinking water in public meetings and Flint’s mayor and ministers begged the Snyder Administration for help, Muchmore pursued a switch off from the Flint River and back to Detroit drinking water.

“Since we’re in charge we can hardly ignore the people of Flint,” Muchmore wrote to state Treasury and public relations officials (the governor was not copied.) “After all, if GM refuses to use the water in their plant and our own agencies are warning people not to drink it… we look pretty stupid hiding behind some financial statement.”

But answers came back from Treasury and the Flint Emergency Manager that the switch would be costly and probably require a 30 percent increase in Flint water rates, which were already sky high.

March 2015: ‘We’ve got to do something’

Money and financial pressures in Flint were at the root of the city’s brewing water problems for years as city officials waged battle with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department over rates and control.

The Snyder Administration, and its emergency manager (with the support of local officials in Flint) chose in 2013 to leave Detroit for a still-unbuilt Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron. DWSD responded in kind, cancelling Flint’s water contract with one year notice. With state approval, the City of Flint, under its emergency manager, chose the problematic Flint River for its temporary drinking water source. It then took more than a year for everyone involved to realize corrosive Flint River water ate at Flint water mains and leached dangerous lead into the drinking water – and into the bloodstreams of some of the city’s children.

Not until October 2015, with Flint finally in full public health emergency, did the state, City of Flint, and the Mott Foundation find the money to re-connect to Detroit drinking water. And only then did Detroit find a way to reduce its past prices to make it possible. The switch came eight months after Muchmore had first explored the idea in February emails.

Stymied in February, Muchmore pursued another Flint fix in March 2015, emails show.

As a former president of the Flint NAACP called the Flint water crisis “environmental racism at its worst,” Kelly Rossman-McKinney, one of the state’s most prominent public relations executives, emailed Muchmore and warned “…this issue is out of hand. I’m concerned about the implications that this may have racial overtones. Ugh.”

Muchmore responded: “It’s an on-going issue that has to do with the long term viability of the city’s finances.” Yet, Muchmore reasoned, “We’ve got to do something for people in Flint because it’s right to do more than it works financially. We’ve got to work on getting them water they can trust but there is no easy solution. This is a tough one, as everyone’s position is correct just not easy.”

The same day, Muchmore emailed Treasury officials and other Snyder Administration aides looking for fresh solutions on Flint: “You can’t expect (Flint) ministers to hold the tide on this problem… If we procrastinate much longer in doing something direct we’ll have real trouble.”

In response, state officials explored providing bottled water, but Deputy State Treasurer Wayne Workman pointed out, “If this does happen, we need to figure out who would hand out the water. It should not be the City. It would undercut every point they are making.” (Flint officials and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality were still insisting Flint drinking water was safe.)

So Muchmore worked on a plan resulting in private companies donating 1,500 water filters Flint ministers passed out in the ensuing months. But, again, Snyder Administration officials wrestled with a contradiction, according to email records, Flint city officials didn’t want to distribute the filters because it countered the narrative that the city’s drinking water was still safe.

July 2015: ‘They are basically getting blown off by us’

In July, Flint haunted Muchmore again. As media reports began pointing to lead in Flint drinking water, Muchmore emailed then-MDEQ Director Dan Wyant and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon. Again, the governor himself was not copied.

“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from DEQ samples. Can you take a moment out of your impossible schedule to personally take a look at this? These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight.)”

MDEQ staffers reported back that the drinking water still met safety standards and there was no evidence connecting Flint drinking water to elevated blood levels in children.

“Frankly, the only way the issues will be totally resolved is when the (Karegnondi pipeline) comes online and the water is perceived to be cleaner and healthier,” Muchmore told colleagues in three state departments at the end of July.

Not until independent water quality and health experts refuted state-agency deflections in fall 2015 did the Snyder Administration take action to stop lead in Flint’s drinking water.

September 2015: Muchmore’s political analysis

One of the key occasions in which Muchmore included the governor himself in Flint-related emails occurred as the crisis was breaking wide open in late September. A September 25 email, which was made public earlier this year, focused much on political analysis. Muchmore said “some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and are particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state.”

Indeed, independent third-party experts were on the verge of proving the connection between Flint water and elevated blood lead levels in children, and would soon force the state to acknowledge huge mistakes in drinking water and public health oversight. But, at that moment, in late September, Muchmore described “the incredible amount of time and effort” the administration had put into the Flint issue, criticized Democratic Flint-area Congressman Dan Kildee as a media hound, and said, “I can’t figure out why the state is responsible,” but for the state’s involvement in the decision to switch Flint off Detroit water.

The frustrations of autumn

Later in the autumn, Muchmore vacillated between working on complex Flint logistics and financial matters and occasionally losing his patience in emails.

On October 1, after a whirlwind 24 hours in which he met with Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and State Representative Sheldon Neeley (both Flint Democrats), Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, Flint ministers, and state Treasury officials – all on the issue of Flint, Muchmore emailed Snyder Legislative Director and former Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus.

“Help,” Muchmore said. “Get me out of this mess.”

A few days later, Muchmore’s wife, a Lansing public relations executive, suggested the Snyder Administration get “an outrage management expert.”

“I think you guys need someone… to help provide some forest for the trees help, message help, etc.,” Deb Muchmore wrote.” I don’t like the way the issue is being handled, reported, etc. You need some help.”

Indeed, public outrage flowed into the Snyder Administration’s constituent services office throughout the fall and winter:

“I remain convinced that if this had happened in a white, affluent, politically powerful community, none of this current obfuscation would be accepted.”

“Tell the governor to stick his survey data up his #&*@. Cash your paycheck like a good drone and don’t bother me with your $%#@. I don’t believe it anyway.”

“Whatever in God’s name has happened to human kindness and compassion and doing the right thing? My question to you is… how can YOU sleep at night. Shame on all of you. I feel sick over this.”

It’s unclear if those public sentiments ever reached the desks of Muchmore and other top Snyder aides. But, along the way, throughout the fall, Flint riddles kept coming Muchmore’s way.

In October, the governor announced a bipartisan after-action task force to investigate the entire tragedy and make recommendations so it doesn’t happen elsewhere. As the task force was being formed, Senate Minority Leader Ananich asked for longtime former Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin to gain a seat. Negotiations ensued over email. “I made the request,” Muchmore replied, and records show that request went to the governor. But Levin wasn’t appointed.

In the negotiations, Muchmore asked Ananich’s office to denounce a constant thorn in the Snyder Administration’s side: the liberal advocacy group, Progress Michigan.

“I assume these jerks don’t represent the Minority Leader, but it would be nice to see a public denunciation of them from him,” Muchmore wrote. “I’m sure they didn’t volunteer any help to the Flint people or put any effort into alleviating the difficulties the city finds itself in since they never do anything positive.”

December 2015: One more casualty

A few weeks later, on his way out the door, Flint gripped Muchmore once again as the casualties of the crisis broadened from the people of Flint to include a member of Snyder’s cabinet – MDEQ Director Dan Wyant who had just resigned.

“Just between you and I,” Muchmore wrote to his replacement Agen on December 29. “I would have argued privately against this very strongly…. Dan is one of the most exceptional directors in state government history over the last forty years…. I’m not sure why this decision was made but if it’s only optics, keep in mind that finding a replacement who has the trust of the business community will be very difficult.”

Muchmore’s concerns were too late to save Wyant.

And the numerous early Snyder Administration email conversations and partial measures they pursued throughout much of 2015 didn’t save the people of Flint from the crisis which exploded in the fall.

In response to questions for this story, Muchmore released a statement through a spokesperson Monday.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that there were a series of breakdowns locally, with the state and with the federal government,” the statement said. “Those with direct oversight should have ensured that corrosion controls were properly implemented and, when that did not occur, officials throughout the chain of command in the state should have caught the error and corrected it. The Governor has accepted responsibility for this terrible situation. As part of that, he has taken the unprecedented step of voluntarily releasing volumes of communications in the interest of full disclosure, to help to restore the public trust and to underscore his absolute commitment to the people of Flint now and into the future.”

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