As an investigative reporter with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Curt Guyette led the way in uncovering the Flint water crisis. The longtime print journalist and former editor of the Detroit Metro Times has continued to report on a daily basis about the ongoing outreach to Flint residents and the alleged cover-up. MiBiz spoke with Guyette about his reporting and the role of government accountability.
Out of all the people you’ve talked to in Flint, is there one story that stands out the most?
For me, it’s the story of how a small group of citizens banded together to conduct an independent test of the water so that they could find out the truth for themselves. It started with the internal EPA memo that Miguel Del Toral wrote, which was leaked, but then the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality assured Flint residents that the water was safe. The next step was the independent citizen-led tests that essentially proved the state was not telling the truth when it claimed the water was safe. That’s what makes it so significant.
Groups have been using the crisis as a call to action to revisit state policies. Clearly, state and local officials need to fix the immediate problem for the people of Flint, but what should some of the next steps be?
The emergency manager law absolutely should be subject. The governor’s own task force emphasized the role of emergency managers in this crisis. We can also see with Detroit Public Schools that they’re at least $500 million deeper in debt than they were before being taken over by the state. Revenue sharing cuts that helped push Flint and other cities to the point of insolvency and allowed them to be taken over, that’s another issue. And the FOIA law is definitely another. The problem is that the state treats the issue as if it’s a managerial problem rather than a structural one, but if they don’t address the structural problems, it doesn’t matter who’s running things. The problem is going to persist.
You mentioned the cuts to revenue sharing. Should the state look to re-evaluate those decisions?
I think the whole philosophy of austerity needs to be evaluated. To think that the most important thing is to balance budgets — if that means kids end up being poisoned, it should be a pretty loud alarm about that kind of strictly bottom-line approach. It shows how short-sighted austerity is. The $5 million that they were supposed to have saved by switching to the river for a couple years has created not just a public health crisis, but an economic catastrophe that’s going to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars. So where’s the savings?
Beyond that, who’s going to foot the bill?
Unfortunately for all of Michigan, taxpayers are going to have to pay the price for this monumental mistake.
One of the focuses for the ACLU has been open government. Michigan has one of the few state governments that is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. How does Michigan compare to other states in terms of transparency?
Well, the report (from The Center for Public Integrity) shows us to be last in terms of transparency. Hopefully, one of the reforms that comes out of this disaster is taking away the FOIA exemption from the governor and the legislature. That would be up to the legislature, but given all this, there should be a strong impetus to do that. We shouldn’t have to rely on the governor voluntarily releasing documents.
Some have referred to the crisis as “an image problem” for the Pure Michigan brand.
How do issues like Flint and Detroit Public Schools affect Michigan’s competitiveness?
I don’t see how it is anything other than extremely detrimental to the state of Michigan to have the whole nation looking at a completely preventable man-made crisis like the one in Flint, and see that it was the government that both caused it and tried to cover it up. How does that help in any way to attract businesses, residents or tourists? Although, to hear talk about ‘branding’ when people have been poisoned is disconcerting. It’s not that it’s unimportant, but what’s imperative right now is to address the short- and long-term needs of the people who have been so damaged.
How has working with an organization like the ACLU helped your efforts in reporting this story?
This job has afforded me both the time and the resources to do important work in a way that was not available to me when I was working at an alternative newspaper. I think that what we were able to help uncover speaks to the importance of that kind of approach.
Did your affiliation with the ACLU hinder your reporting at all?
Because I work for the ACLU, the MDEQ chose not to respond to me when I was initially reporting this story, but that didn’t really serve as an impediment. It didn’t help them at all. As a matter of fact, the people that wouldn’t talk to me are now out of a job. I know that in e-mails they refer to me as a ‘reporter’ with quote marks around the word, so they questioned my legitimacy. But they also questioned (Virginia Tech professor) Marc Edwards and (pediatrician) Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, so I’m in good company.
As you look back at how this problem came to light, what’s your assessment of how the people of Flint reacted?
I cannot understate the importance of how much the response has been driven by the residents of Flint, who refused to believe the lie that their water was safe. They found a number of allies to help them get to the truth, but the bottom-line driving force behind all of this was the citizens themselves. It just goes to show how powerful that kind of activism can be.