Lessons learned from crises in city and town politics

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More often than not, engaging in public service through work in a government department – even on a small-town level – involves navigating a complex political landscape. And in America’s bigger cities, that landscape can more closely resemble a mine-spotted battlefield than anything else. When crises occur in such a context, their gravity is magnified by the simple fact that they will affect thousands or perhaps even millions of lives, whether by impeding the proper function of essential municipal services or, in cases of corruption and malfeasance, by damaging the public’s trust in public servants. In some cities, that trust is at a premium precisely because of repeated crises or scandals that have caused residents to become jaded – or disengaged almost entirely from current events.

For those considering a career in public administration and pursuing an MPA degree, many of the most infamous recent corruption cases and examples of crisis can be extremely valuable learning opportunities. As follows, we’ll examine some of the biggest public service-related scandals and crises, identifying the mistakes (or deliberate wrongdoing) that led to them and looking at how they illustrate what not to do in such situations.

The Flint water crisis

Of all the issues that will be discussed in this piece, the contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and the resultant crises – which began in April 2014 and as of July 2017 have not been fully resolved – constitute, in summation, arguably the most disturbing incident to affect public health and overall administration in decades. What happened in this Midwestern city spread to virtually every segment of the public sector, causing rampant distrust of city and state government and, more gravely, leading to cases of illness and death.

According to Time magazine, Flint decided to switch to the nearby Flint River for public water supplies, in an effort to cut costs amassed by relying on the same reservoirs and sources that brought water to nearby Detroit. Not long after this decision’s mid-2014 implementation, residents of Flint started to formally complain about the water’s smell and appearance – it looked brown and brackish as any muddy puddle in some cases. City officials refused to address that Flint’s lead water-supply pipes were deteriorating and poisoning residents’ water until the fall of 2015, switching back to Detroit’s water in October, and didn’t publicly acknowledge the matter until January 2016.

Since that time, the city and state governments have spent millions in an effort to replace the Flint River pipes, and to otherwise mitigate the crisis’s effects, but so much damage has already been done, and at least 12 people have died from outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease caused by the water’s lead poisoning. A year after admitting the water’s dangers in 2016 – after which Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency – most residents still rely on bottled water, and tests claiming the water’s safety are widely disputed.

Time reported that two emergency managers received multiple felony indictments in December 2016 for their role in exacerbating the crisis. In June 2017, The New York Times reported that the head of Michigan’s health department and four other officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter, the most severe indictments filed against public servants in conjunction with the crisis.

What this case exemplifies is the need for city or town governments facing public health crises to be transparent in all matters, and to act quickly no matter the cost. Michigan and Flint were not, and citizens are suffering by the thousands due to their inaction and denial.

State House corruption in Massachusetts

The city of Boston has something of a reputation for politics being determined in backroom deals and quid pro quos. The imbroglio surrounding former state congressman Salvatore DiMasi, once the House Speaker for the state legislature, is one of the biggest recent examples of this.

DiMasi was convicted June 15, 2011 in federal court of various acts of corruption, stemming from his efforts to help a software firm win lucrative state contracts in exchange for financial compensation. According to The Boston Globe, DiMasi followed in the footsteps of the two previous Massachusetts House Speakers, Thomas Finneran and Charles Flaherty, who were also federally indicted but struck deals and pled guilty to avoid jail time. DiMasi professed his innocence, and earned an eight-year prison sentence. Upon the revelation in late 2016 that the former politician suffered from cancer, though, the Globe reported that prosecutors requested his early release, which they would eventually obtain, as he’d served approximately five years and further imprisonment would severely impede his health.

Government officials in DiMasi’s position, and also in far less visible, more bureaucratic jobs, undoubtedly face temptation to use the powers of their office for political gain. Thus, it’s of paramount importance that they maintain ethical composure in such situations and immediately report those who attempt to bribe them to the proper authorities.

Baltimore’s education budget deficit

Unlike the instances described above, the case of Baltimore’s school budget deficit is not one of deliberate corruption but of mistakes and neglect that led to a financial catastrophe. But situations of its kind are considerably more common than those of outright malfeasance, and as such are more illustrative to MPA students of the administrative issues that city and town governments so often face.

According to The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore faced a $130 million budget shortfall that meant 10 percent of its $1.3 billion fund had slipped through the cracks. Sonja Santelises, CEO for the school system, was prepared to lay off more than 1,000 employees as of January 2017, but by May, when the school board approved the finalized budget, about 300 layoffs were expected instead. The two previous years also included Baltimore school system layoffs, but the latest round would affect teachers, who had previously managed to escape losing their jobs. The Sun’s most recent reporting found that fewer than 150 staff members were let go once the budget finally came into effect, but the layoffs damaged teachers’ morale and left them with dim prospects about the coming school year.

Factors cited as major contributors to the budget shortfall that eventually led to budget cuts and job losses included a school construction program that was not fully thought through, an increase in teacher salaries across the board, drops in student enrollment and rerouting of money originally allocated for education costs by state officials. City councilors requested assistance from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and the state legislature, but did not receive enough of it.

What can be learned from this example? In almost all public services, including education, shortfalls will occur – sometimes for completely innocuous reasons. When they do, it’s critical that city and state government officials communicate and cooperate. This didn’t occur in Baltimore’s situation, and while the consequences weren’t as negative as originally expected, their impact was nonetheless significant. When it comes to serving the greater public good, all prospective government employees must recognize that openness and cooperation are both key to success.

Learn More

The School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark, provider of the online Master of Public Administration, is accredited by the NASPAA. Before a program becomes eligible for accreditation by the NASPAA, its parent school must be recognized by a regional, national or international agency. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education and is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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