Dennis Schornack, who served as a senior advisor on transportation in Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) administration for three years, blamed the widespread water contamination that has led to lead poisoning and possibly a Legionnaire’s outbreak on Snyder’s penchant for running government like a business. He’s the first Snyder official to directly criticize the governor’s handling of the situation.
“Government is not a business…and it cannot be run like one,” Schornack told the Detroit Free Press. “The people of Flint got stuck on the losing end of decisions driven by spreadsheets instead of water quality and public health. Having been a Snyder staffer, luckily in a spreadsheet-rich area like transportation, I lived the culture amidst its faults.”
He added, “It’s sort of a single dimension for decision making; thinking that if it can’t be solved on a spreadsheet, it can’t be solved.”
Snyder came to office in 2011 after a three decades-long career in the private sector, with jobs as an accountant, venture capitalist, and an executive at Gateway Computers, without prior public sector experience, calling himself “one tough nerd.” His administration focused on a private sector approach to government that has elicited criticism, particularly for appointing people with private sector experience as un-elected emergency managers of both Detroit and Flint.
Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr, previously a lawyer for Jones Day, as emergency manager of Detroit while the city was facing bankruptcy. Orr has since been accused of working with his other colleagues at the law firm to push Detroit through bankruptcy before he even took the position, rather than hold serious negotiations over pension obligations. The bankruptcy plan he eventually orchestrated was also curbed by a judge for trying to give too much to banks at the expense of retirees.
Snyder has also overseen the privatization of a number of government functions, including public schools, services for veterans, and prison food. He was also criticized for including a proposal in his most recent budget to move state mental health funds into private entities, although the administration pushed back on characterizing it as privatization.
Snyder disputed Schornack’s characterization of the Flint crisis. “It’s not a business model,” he told the Free Press Editorial Board, but a group of career civil servants who didn’t use common sense. “This shows a culture of, ‘Here’s a regulation; let’s just apply the regulation,’ instead of ‘Let’s worry about someone’s health,'” he said.
It’s still not clear who made the final decisions to switch the water supply to the Flint River while it waited for a new facility to be built. Nor do we know how the city failed to add corrosion controls to make sure lead didn’t leach into the pipes. But evidence shows the series of decisions were intended to cut costs in a city struggling with its finances. The initial plan claimed that it would save $6 to $8 million. The costs of the fallout will far outstrip those potential savings, however: the price tag for replacing the city’s pipes alone has been estimated at $55 million, not to mention the health, educational, and incarceration costs as children who have been poisoned grow up. The civil lawsuits against the city have already begun piling up.
Schornack told the Press that he believes Snyder is a smart leader and “basically a good guy,” although added that if detractors successfully add a recall question to November’s ballot, “he’s dead.”