Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has a problem. Publicly — and many would say sincerely — he's copped to a government failure to avoid the "disaster" that is the poisoned water supply in Flint and the dozens of people sickened from drinking it over the past year and a half.
An apology. A step toward transparency. A promise for immediate action with a a long-term commitment to fix it. That was pretty much all the governor could do, we wrote Wednesday.
But unfortunately for Snyder, it doesn't seem to have been enough. The same day the second-term governor released his emails, President Obama toured an auto show in Detroit, and he called the crisis and how long it took to respond "inexcusable." On Thursday, the Detroit Free Press wrote an editorial calling the email release a good start but saying that Snyder needs to do more.
The question is, what?
Snyder has a trust issue, plain and simple. And to solve it, he needs to prove he's not hiding anything about what he and his administration knew and when. And whether Snyder realizes it or not, that probably means releasing any and all documents related to Flint — including from other members of his administration, which he has thus far resisted.
Snyder may have thought making public 274 pages of his emails from 2014 and 2015 would do that, but it appears that to many, it simply didn't.
For one, the entire first page was redacted. (Snyder said it was an unrelated lawsuit, but still, the optics are bad.)
No joke, the entire first email released by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is redacted. pic.twitter.com/RzPif77UET— Kyle Feldscher (@Kyle_Feldscher) January 20, 2016
There are still valid questions about what he and his aides knew about the crisis and when. Snyder said he knew last summer that his top aides were concerned that Flint residents were "getting blown off" by the state's environmental department (whose director has since resigned).
Snyder has said as soon as he knew what was really going on in Flint, he reacted swiftly. And indeed, in an October email, Snyder inquires about "financing mechanisms" for Flint and says he wants action "ASAP." His retiring chief of staff told the Free Press that the governor was angry he didn't find out about things sooner, specifically the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area that has killed 10 and may be linked to the tainted water (though health officials have yet to find a conclusive link).
But at least one email shows Snyder aides questioning whether Flint was their problem.
Email from Gov. Snyder’s ex-chief of staff: “I can’t figure out why the state is responsible” #FlintWaterCrisis pic.twitter.com/uxwSdvmRqu— reported.ly (@reportedly) January 20, 2016
Snyder's next step is very likely to release his staffs' emails, and to do it soon. Next would be to release any documents between state health and environmental officials and his office. Basically, make public anything and all in his power related to Flint. Snyder clearly doesn't want to do this, but it might not be avoidable.
The problem is that Snyder has already drawn a line some find unacceptable. He said earlier this week that he wouldn't release his staff's emails because they're "private," he said.
He's ostensibly making a technical argument, since the governor's office doesn't fall under the state's open records law. But that's an argument easy for critics to punch holes in, and that does not help bolster Snyder's case that he's trying to do all he can to be accountable.
"The idea that any e-mails exchanged on public servers can be considered 'private' is perverse," the Detroit Free Press editorial board wrote, adding later that "Snyder’s e-mails tell only part of the story; others in his office may have e-mail records that illuminate the issue."
It's not too late for Snyder to switch course and be as transparent as he possibly can. Despite all of Snyder's efforts, people still have questions as to how government — at all levels, not just at the state level — failed them on such a specific level.
Snyder needs to answer that as quickly, decisively and comprehensively as he can, and then hope like hell that people accept it.