A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

A Public Policy Failure

By Buzz McClain, BA '77 on September 3, 2021

In 2014, the city managers of Flint, Michigan, switched the water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River. The cost-saving change created one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in recent history as the foul-smelling, discolored, and off-tasting water supply to the 96,000 residents—whose years-long complaints of skin rashes, hair loss, and other ailments were ignored—was found to be both contaminated with dangerous levels of lead and harboring Legionnaires’ disease. Charges of systemic racism continue.

Tonya T. Neaves.

A new book of essays, Managing Challenges for the Flint Water Crisis (Westphalia Press), examines the crisis as a failure of municipal management. The book was commissioned by Schar School associate professor Bonnie Stabile, editor of the World Medical & Health Policy journal, and edited by Mason assistant professor Tonya Thornton; Katherine Simon, MPA ’19; Mason environmental science and policy professor Jennifer Sklarew; and public works expert Andrew Williams.

Thornton discussed the book with the Mason Spirit.

How did you decide who to include in this book? 

These essays were by invitation only. I primarily worked through the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA)’s Section on Emergency and Crisis Management (SECM) to solicit interest. I serve as the SECM treasurer and am actively involved in ASPA. I now co-chair ASPA’s Pandemic Task Force.

What inspired you to put together this collection?

As an emergency management expert, particularly working with local governments, this was a unique crisis to study. It was also important to examine this crisis from many angles, given its social, political, economic, and environmental implications. Additionally, human-induced disasters are treated very differently from natural threats, given [natural disasters] are perceived with a lack of control and there is a responsible party to be held accountable [in human-induced disasters]. Now my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, is also facing a water crisis, about which we are now considering pulling together an edited volume.

How did you select your co-editors?

Andrew Williams is my husband, and he owns a local government consulting firm. Prior to that, he worked in local government as a deputy director of public works. Therefore, he has tacit knowledge in the mechanics of water systems as well as the many implications governing body decisions can have upon its constituency. Katherine Simon is a former graduate student of mine who worked as an assistant while she was studying emergency and crisis management. Jennifer Sklarew is an expert in environmental policy, and we are both actively involved in Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth and its Center for Resilient and Sustainable Communities.

You’ve said the disaster fails your 4C’s model. Can you elaborate?

There was a lack of communication that led to a disconnect in coordination and cooperation, which, in turn, did not produce meaningful collaboration. When this model is not adhered to, even in the simplest of terms, it will result in weakened social capital and fractured political trust.

Was there anything that surprised you when working on the book?

It became apparent that the choices among governing bodies have consequences. Sadly, many elected leaders run on a single-issue platform and are not well versed in the larger operating mechanics of local government. Therefore, their decisions can be catastrophic regardless of intention.

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