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Charges against Snyder risk criminalizing public service

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s decision to charge former Gov. Rick Snyder and members of his administration in the Flint water crisis sets a dangerous precedent that could, depending on the outcome, make public service a high-risk enterprise.

She bears the tremendous responsibility to demonstrate that the charges are warranted and not the product of a political vendetta.

The public was left with little background, however, following the announced charges. Nessel’s office should have been much more transparent on such a major charging decision.

The charges against Snyder seek to hold him criminally responsible for policymaking that went bad. He faces two charges of willful neglect of duty for neglecting “his mandatory legal duties under the Michigan constitution and the Emergency Management Act, thereby failing to protect the health and safety of Flint’s residents.”

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, not every decision made by government during the heat of a crisis turns out as well as intended.

But a distinction must be drawn between bad choices honestly made and ill intent, corruption and fraud — the allegations typically raised against office-holders.

Snyder signed off on the plan to switch Flint’s water source to the Flint River — acting on the advice of his team and with some support from city officials.

The complaint against him is dated April 25, 2014, the day of the water changeover, indicating that’s when Nessel will contend the crime was committed.

Snyder agreed to pull the city out of the Detroit Regional Water Authority at the urging of city officials, who felt Flint was being overcharged, and the state-appointed emergency manager who was overseeing the city.

It was not a hasty decision. And it might have turned out OK had Flint water department workers added the necessary chemicals to the water to prevent lead from leaching out of old pipes. Snyder could not have known that mistake was made.

We’ve noted that Snyder was slow in acting when complaints about Flint’s drinking water were raised, and some of his decisions as the crisis unfolded are fair game for second-guessing. But again, not picking the right strategy does not necessarily constitute negligence.

Some of the charges against Snyder’s team are linked to several deaths from an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint.

Those deaths still can’t be positively linked to the water system switch.

A study by the Michigan Health and Human Services Department concluded more than two-thirds of the Legionnaires’ victims did not live in a household served by the Flint water department.

The same report identified the common link between the victims and a local hospital, and not the water system.

Snyder has said he acted on his best advice and instincts in managing the Flint situation. Those from his administration who were charged along with him, including Rich Baird, his most trusted lieutenant, and former Health Director Nick Lyon, have also said they were acting on the best information available at the time. Many were following the directions of their superiors.

Obviously, public officials shouldn’t be immune from prosecution for criminal activity or a cover-up. Nor should they be subject to undue persecution when one party leaves office and another takes over.

This move by the highly partisan Nessel, a Democrat, could easily be taken as politically motivated against the former Republican governor, and pandering to a constituency that has demanded Snyder be held accountable for Flint.

The risk here is of criminalizing public service.

If the charges prove unwarranted, it will send a clear message that public service is a high risk enterprise and will serve to discourage good people from entering the government.

The former governor may have made mistakes — he acknowledged as much. But whether they rise to the level of criminal misconduct, as Nessel’s mass indictment indicates, has yet to be proved.

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