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Flint’s Water Crisis: America’s 21st Century Boston Tea Party

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Clements
July 30, 2019

The American spirit of representation can be traced back to the writings of Mr. James Otis, who in 1761 wrote that, “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” which harbored American resentment towards the British parliament. In colonial America the colonists were fighting to have representation and the right to control certain areas of their lives. A closer introspection of the conditions the people of Flint, Michigan experienced in 2014-2016 highlights an eerily similar situation. Unbeknownst to many is the fact that Flint, MI had some of the highest water rates in the world according to fintwaterstudy.org.

In order to understand the lack of representation experienced by the people of Flint, it is important to take a brief look at the history of city management. In America’s capitalist society the importance of financial sustainability cannot and should not be overlooked. Between the years of 2002-2004, Flint experienced a growing span of state control in its affairs due to financial hardships which occurred again in 2011. This was technically set to end on April 29, 2015. The truth was, however, that even after the emergency management was deemed to be over, the state maintained the right to overlook the financial endeavors of Flint. The Receivership Transition Advisory Board, appointed by the governor, had continued to review the city’s financials and thus, impacted the role of representation in Flint, Michigan.

In the town of Flint, the issue of structural and strategic racism has been evaluated by the federal court system due to the actions of then Governor Rick Snyder, which replaced a ballot proposal to repeal a law introduced by the Governor and the Legislature that expanded the powers of emergency managers. The people of Flint voted against such measures, but unfortunately, their collective voices could not overpower those of the view in city management. Despite the citizens clearly voting against the measures introduced by the Governor, the governor signed a replacement law just two months later. There is a long list of emergency manager actors who played vital roles in the water crisis by hindering and stifling fairness, justice and representation. This list can be found here.

During the tenure of Flint’s former mayor (2011-2012), many high-ranking city hall employees were laid off, which hindered and silenced the voice of the people by eliminating their representatives. As discussed by Dr. William J. Benet, fair representation serves an important role in ensuring that there is no creation of a rigid relationship between power and hierarchy—which leads to the institutionalization of dominance to the vulnerable, as was the case in Flint. During the time of the financial hardships being experienced in Flint there were public safety administrators who were posting about having two six-figure salaries jobs while the police departments were enduring forced concessions and wage cuts, reduced retirement benefits and longer shifts.

Unfortunately, the people of Flint experienced much worse than what has been written so far in this piece. The reality of the situation cannot be communicated without acknowledging the water crisis which the people of Flint had to endure. Though reluctantly, one must ask whether this situation had to happen? Whether the cause was greed or ignorance, the results of underrepresentation and inequality has taken a huge toll on the people of Flint. Children have been exposed to lead at levels three times that of the recommended levels. This, combined with the rise in legionnaires disease, has introduced lifelong consequences that a vulnerable population of people must endure for a lifetime. An analysis of this situation reveals that the people who were targeted and impacted by these policies were overwhelmingly the same people paying higher water bills and streetlight taxes, and who had their representatives laid off by executive decree. It is vital that we, as public administrators, learn from monumental mistakes and injustices such as the tragedy that occurred in Flint, Michigan.

In closing, we must begin to realize that the measure of our citizens is not how much revenue they generate or how much we could save by delivering substandard services. We are tasked with a sacred and noble cause to ensure that everyone has the opportunity for a healthy existence within our jurisdictions. It is hard, if not futile, to suggest that municipalities do not need revenue, but it may be time to return to the trestle board to rethink our strategy for delivering services. Much like our early countrymen, maybe the Flint Water Crisis was the Boston Tea Party of the 21st century.


Author: Dr. William Clements, Ph.D. is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Psychology at higher education institutions. He possesses a Bachelor of Science Degree in Justice Studies, a Master of Science Degree in Forensic Psychology, and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Public Policy and Administration. He has served in the field of public service for a total of 12 plus years and is a well-read enthusiast for topics of economics, politics, homeland security, and most of all, public policy. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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