Written by Sean Cleary 4:17 pm ASSE, Backflow Prevention

When the Public Loses Faith

Do you have faith in the institutions that affect your life? Your church, your government, the Boy Scouts of America, your local news, or the weatherman? Most people will answer no to at least some of these institutions. Some will answer no to every one of them. In 2019, according to the Pew Research Center, only 17 percent of Americans trust the federal government. The same study rephrased the question with a narrower focus, asking if the federal government does the right thing almost always – the study found that only three percent of people agreed with the statement. When asked if the government does the right thing most of the time, only 14 percent of the people agreed. These numbers are all time lows in public trust and should concern each and everyone of us.

While the numbers are better for trust in state governments and even better at the local level, it is still a major issue in many areas. There are many factors that have contributed to this problem. However, based on the actions, or inactions, of the powers that be, people have good reasons to question how and why things happen and who is responsible.

In the water quality arena, there is no better example of poor state and local government than what occurred – and is still occurring – in Flint, Mich. The Flint water crisis was a completely man-made disaster and the malfeasance of government officials on the state and local level is staggering. To date, no one other than the citizens of Flint, including children who will be impacted for the rest of their lives as a result of the lead-tainted water and those who died as a result of the Legionella outbreak, have paid any real price for their government’s actions. Arrests were made and the former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said, “I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: so many things went so terribly wrong, and tragically wrong, in Flint.” Schutte promised that no one was above the law and that people would be held responsible.

Fifteen governmental officials were charged with crimes as a result of their actions. To date, many charges have been dropped and several individuals have been allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges, which include no jail time and, in some cases, will leave individuals with no criminal record after completing probation. It is likely that some will be allowed to return to work in their previous fields. Several individuals still have charges pending. These include both Nick Lyon, who was the director of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive. Lyon has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, a 15-year felony, and misconduct in office, a five-year felony. Wells has been charged with obstruction of justice, a five-year felony, and lying to a police officer, a two-year misdemeanor. As unbelievable as it may be, Michigan’s former Governor Rick Snyder at that time said in a statement that Lyon and Wells have his “full faith and confidence” and would remain on duty to help in Flint’s recovery. Both remained in their jobs until Governor Snyder was replaced in the 2018 election cycle. The fact that the water crisis occurred is not in question. Neither is the fact that no one in Michigan’s government has taken responsibility for what has occurred. President Harry S. Truman kept a sign on his desk that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” He thought that true leadership meant that the person at the top was the person responsible for actions that took place under his watch. It is clear that no one in Michigan’s former administration shared President Truman’s vision or had his integrity or honor.

The people of Flint are being victimized twice. Once with the crisis itself and now in dealing with the fact that although promises were made, it may be possible that no one will be held responsible in any real way. How will it be possible for the citizens of Flint to ever have faith in their government and believe what they are told by elected or appointed officials?

We need our institutions to be truthful with us. We need to have confidence that they are working for the public good. If mistakes are made, we need people to admit that issues exist and let us know what they, and we, can do to solve the problem. Problems will happen and mistakes will be made – that is life. No matter how hard we try, bad things can and will occur. Learning from mistakes allows us to work toward preventing future problems. This is how we restore trust.

Michigan now has a new governor and attorney general. A fresh set of eyes are looking at what went on in Flint. As a result, perhaps the people of Flint and the citizens of Michigan will see a change in what is being done to fix the problem, and just as importantly, what is being done to make sure it can never happen again. That is when public trust will grow – when the public sees officials taking responsibility and working to make their lives better. Recently, former Governor Snyder’s cellphone and hard drives, along with the cellphones and other records of 65 current or former officials, were seized by authorities as part of the investigation. Time will tell, but hopefully things are moving in the correct direction.

There was a time in the United States when you could drink the water flowing from any public system, anywhere in the country. That trust is a thing of the past, but if we work hard and work together to make sure problems are solved, perhaps we can restore the public trust moving forward.

Article first published in Working Pressure magazine

Sean Cleary
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Sean Cleary has been a member of United Association Local 524 Scranton, Pa. for more than 40 years. He has worked in all phases of the plumbing and mechanical industry, and is a licensed master plumber. Cleary is a past president of ASSE International and past chairman of the ASSE Cross-Connection Control Technical Committee. He is employed by IAPMO as the vice president of operations for the Backflow Prevention Institute (BPI).

Last modified: December 19, 2023