The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Flint official used racial slur, blamed water crisis on blacks who ‘don’t pay their bills’

Hundreds of cases of bottled water are stored at a church in Flint, Mich., in 2016. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

In recorded conversations with an advocacy journalist last month, a public official in Flint, Mich., blamed the city’s ongoing water crisis on black people who “don’t pay their bills.”

Phil Stair, the sales manager for a county agency that manages tax-foreclosed homes, used the racial slur “n‑‑‑‑‑,” according to the recordings published to an online blog on Sunday. “Believe me,” Stair, who is white, said. “I deal with them.”

The next day, Stair resigned from the Genesee County Land Bank, where he was a longtime employee.

“I feel that I cannot carry out nor be effective in my position at the Land Bank with the social media [recording] of my private opinion on the Flint water crisis and the insensitive language used,” Stair’s resignation letter said, according to a copy obtained by MLive. “I am deeply sorry for what I said and those I offended. I do not know how I can face my friends and co-workers.”

Environmental activist Chelsea Lyons told MLive she and another woman secretly recorded the conversations over two days last month, the local newspaper reported. Lyons said the women received a tip that Stair was at a local bar and went there to speak with him.

Lyons is a self-described “activist, water protector and citizen journalist” who has traveled the county advocating for clean water. Her recordings were first published on June 4 by Truth Against The Machine, a blog that brands itself as the antithesis to “corporate media.”

Lyons told MLive that she wanted to speak with Stair because she has concerns that the Land Bank is pushing people out of their Flint neighborhoods. She called the Land Bank, which acquires, develops and resells tax-foreclosed properties, a “disaster.”

“I had no idea he was going to say the things that he said,” Lyons told MLive. “That was not exactly what I was going for.”

Take a look at the key moments that led up to Flint, a city of 90,000, getting stuck with contaminated water. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

In the recordings, Stair compared Flint’s issues with challenges in Detroit.

One catalyst for the Flint water crisis was water price hikes in Detroit, which managed Flint’s water supply. When it became too expensive, Flint city officials decided to pull water from the contaminated Flint River. But corroded pipes leached lead into the water, sickening residents and making the supply unsafe to drink.

City officials also increased the fees for water in Flint, which a judge later found to be in violation of city ordinances and ordered the rates to be reduced by 35 percent. A national study found that in 2015, Flint residents paid the highest water rates in America, reported the Detroit Free Press.

Now thousands of residents in Flint face foreclosure for not paying their water bills. Advocates argue the residents should not be forced to pay for poisoned water, but the city claims they need the revenue to fix the problem.

Stair was captured on the recording saying, “Detroit was charging all its customers for the cost — they weren’t collecting from their residents, they were shutting water off, they were letting bills go forever, they were charging everybody else. Flint has the same problems as Detroit — f‑‑‑ing n‑‑‑‑‑s don’t pay their bills, believe me, I deal with them.”

Lyons, the environmental activist, told Michigan Radio that during their conversation, Stair “didn’t appear drunk.”

“He was drinking, though he didn’t appear to be inebriated in any way,” she said.

In response to Stair’s comments, U.S. Rep. Daniel Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint, tweeted a sharp condemnation. Kildee founded the county Land Bank in 2004 when he was serving as county treasurer.

“This behavior is awful and indefensible,” Kildee wrote on Twitter Sunday night. “Phil Stair should be fired or resign immediately.”

Wildman told local media that Stair’s letter of resignation was waiting on her desk when she got to work Monday mornings. The Land Bank executive director told MLive she never suspected this kind of sentiment form Stair.

“We are deeply troubled by the offensive and inexcusable comments,” Michele Wildman, executive director of the Land Bank, told NBC News. “This individual does not reflect our values as a company, and we are engaging with the community to restore and regain public trust.”

More from Morning Mix

The divide over Keshia Knight Pulliam, a.k.a. Rudy Huxtable, attending Bill Cosby’s trial

Black NASCAR driver ‘Bubba’ Wallace: Will he help break open the whitest of sports?

‘I know what Paul Ryan stands for’: 8th grader defends refusal to pose with House speaker

The easy trail that led the feds to Reality Winner, alleged source of NSA leak

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announces charges against six state officials in the Flint water crisis July 29 during a news conference. (Video: Reuters)