Today Bill Schuette, the attorney general of Michigan, announced indictments that included two former Flint emergency managers — Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley.
But the announcement was delivered in rhetoric that seemed to pertain to something more than the indictments of these public officials. Many listening to Schuette seem to hear indictments against the EM law ringing in their ears. When Schuette said "officials put balance sheets ahead of Flint residents," many found the temptation to conclude that Schuette is actually criticizing the much-hated Emergency Manager Law irresistible.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver reached that conclusion: A Detroit Free Press piece by Paul Egan and Elisha Sanderson said "she sees the charges as a broader indictment of the state's emergency manager system for financially distressed cities, in which an appointed official from outside takes powers stripped from the elected mayor and council."
We also received a press release from U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D, Flint), which called Schuette's announcements "an indictment not only of their decisions, but an indictment against the administration’s failed emergency manager law that contributed to this crisis."
We totally understand why these people claim they hear an indictment of the EM law. It kinda sorta almost is.
But it isn't.
And that started a "spirited discussion" here at the office, where we tried to get to the bottom of what the hell Schuette is doing with these indictments.
Somebody got the bright idea to actually look at the indictment. True, some of Schuette's statements get almost up to the point of naming the Emergency Manager Law as the ultimate problem here. But they don't come out and say it.
The AG's comments include: “The crisis in Flint was a casualty of arrogance, disdain and a failure of management. An absence of accountability. We will proceed to deliver justice and hold those accountable who broke the law.”
Hmmmm ... what form of government involves management and an absence of accountability? You know, like an inability to vote somebody out of office? For the life of us, it does sound like the very idea of emergency management.
But if you read the actual charges, the law is not going to be tried. It is people who will be tried. And the charges laid out against them seem to mostly involve using Flint's bonding authority to finish a pipeline for the Karegnondi Water Authority. Charges include False Pretenses, Conspiracy to Commit False Pretenses, Misconduct in Office, and Willful Neglect of Duty in Office.
In other words, when people are installed as Emergency Managers and are given broad, sweeping powers with no checks or balances — the Attorney General's Office is shocked (shocked!) when they misuse their power. And they can expect to be prosecuted.
In other words, the system works.
And it makes perfect political sense for Bill Schuette to suddenly sound somewhere to the left of Monica Lewis-Patrick. Somebody mulling over a 2018 gubernatorial run has to occasionally sound as if he agrees with the people on a few things.
What all this verbiage comes down to is a simple warning to those who so desperately (and rightly) want to be cheered by today's indictments: Not so fast.
See, Darnell Earley and Gerry Ambrose are quarterbacks. They come and they go. They have winning seasons and losing seasons. They could go to jail for 20 years and it wouldn't change a thing as long as Lansing keeps handing guys like them the ball.
That handoff, which is enabled by the Emergency Manager Law, is the real problem. And as we've said before, "until that noxious law is finally wiped off the books, you can expect the same irresponsible behavior from unaccountable appointees. What happened in Flint isn't a story about how 'something went wrong' or 'incompetence' or how 'a few bad apples' hurt people. What happened is a natural outcome of taking away people's democracy and instituting legally shielded bean-counters to govern by fiat."
But what is the likelihood that Schuette is willing to make the leap that these specific indictments are really general indictments of our state's Emergency Manager Law? Probably about as good as the next leap, that any indictment of our EM Law is an indictment of the Snyder administration, GOP gerrymandering, and white-shoe law firms who wanted to use Michigan as a testing ground for municipal bankruptcy.
Or, is it more likely that Schuette, like any seasoned prosecutor, has put his finger into the air before embarking on a closely watched trial and is making a calculated move to inflame popular passions with empty rhetoric? What do you think?