Governor Snyder’s Apologies in the Flint Water Crisis

Our governor, Rick Snyder, issued what he called an apology a couple weeks ago for what’s known as the “Flint water crisis.” Governor Snyder’s statement, in my humble opinion, didn’t meet the criteria for an effective apology, and the result has been – no surprise – more conflict. So yesterday, he tried again; he’s getting closer, but he still hasn’t truly apologized.

In April 2014, the city of Flint switched from Detroit water to water from its own Flint River, in order to save money. But it was immediately apparent to residents that Flint water was “bad.” Their complaints to the state went unheeded for over a year, until evidence demonstrated that Flint children had elevated levels of lead that could have come only from the water. Flint switched back to Detroit water in October 2015, and Governor Snyder appointed a task force to determine what went wrong.

The task force issued preliminary findings just after Christmas, pointing to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance as the culprit. The DEQ director and his spokesman – who initially criticized the lead-level reports as “irresponsible” – resigned. Then Governor Snyder issued a statement that included this:

“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened. And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.

“I know many Flint citizens are angry and want more than an apology. That’s why I’m taking the actions today to ensure a culture of openness and trust. We’ve already allocated $10 million to test the water, distribute water filters, and help in other ways…”

One way to measure an apology is by comparing it with Peacemaker Ministries’ “Seven A’s of Confession.” This statement is good on one of the A’s, “Alter behavior”—it devotes quite a bit of space to what will be done differently in the future. Another “A” is “Admit specifically.” Governor Snyder, if you really want to apologize, you need to tell us what you did — or didn’t do — that you now regret. Saying you’re “sorry that this happened” is like saying to a friend, “I’m sorry you have cancer.” Using the word “sorry” doesn’t convert a statement into an apology.

Perhaps he does not see how he is responsible for the tragedy in Flint. If so, he’s being honest, not taking the blame when it would be politically expedient to do so. Or perhaps he’s leery of the repercussions if he admits responsibility, a fear that stops many of us from apologizing.

Now Governor Snyder is being excoriated in the national media. Perhaps that prompted yesterday’s statement in Flint, where he acknowledged  that the state’s response had not been “good enough,” and that he’s “responsible for what happens in state government.” And yet he still sounds defensive; he pointed out that he already apologized, and insisted that his office has been “clear to communicate” the issues at the DEQ — neither of which, in my opinion, is true. And he’s still publicly insisting that he didn’t know there was a problem until October, even though his chief of staff Dennis Muchmore alerted him months before that.

It’s not too late for Governor Snyder to make a good apology, and he’s moving in the right direction. It should include elements corresponding to the A’s of “Admit specifically” as well as “Acknowledge the harm” and “Accept the consequences.” It could also include an apology for his poor attempt at an apology.