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Water woes bubble below the surface in Flint recall election

Associated Press • Nov 6, 2017 at 9:30 AM

DETROIT — Karen Weaver was elected mayor of Flint two years ago arguing that her predecessor had bungled the response to the city's lead-contaminated water crisis.

Seventeen other people now believe they can do a better job and are seeking to oust her Tuesday in a recall election.

The ballot for the winner-take-all election doesn't refer to the lead crisis — the official reason is Weaver's decision to hire a suburban Detroit trash hauler that became connected to a federal corruption investigation. Still, the troubles caused by Flint's ill-fated switch to a cheaper water source are on everybody's minds.

"The official reason is the trash-hauling contract, but the real reason, I think, is the water," said Paul Rozycki, a retired political science professor who taught at Flint's Mott Community College for 40 years. "And, frankly, the lack of trust in the whole local system."

The city got its water from the Flint River during an 18-month period in 2014 and 2015 — when it was under state control. The water wasn't properly treated, though, and it caused lead from pipes to leach into what people were drinking.

Some children were found to have elevated lead levels, which can cause miscarriages, developmental delays and other problems. The disaster has led to 15 current or former governmental officials being charged with crimes and lawsuits filed by numerous residents. Twelve people died of Legionnaires' disease, a type of pneumonia some experts have linked to the tainted water.

Even with progress replacing pipes and decreasing lead levels, a judge has admonished the Flint City Council for failing to come up with a long-term water source and warned bankruptcy could result. The state of Michigan sued Flint earlier this year, seeking to force the city to sign a 30-year deal with the Great Lakes Water Authority, which stepped in after the lead disaster was declared.

Although candidate Arthur Woodson didn't mention the lead crisis in his petition for the recall election, he argues that Weaver and other city officials lack the competence or experience to deal with the problems it has caused.

He has alleged that Weaver sought to gain financially from an emergency trash collection deal with Rizzo Environmental Services that she approved against the city council's wishes. The company became enmeshed in a federal probe into bribery and conspiracy that has led to charges against about a dozen people, including former company executives and elected officials elsewhere. Weaver ultimately sided with the council in approving a contract with another company.

Weaver made the water problems a focus of her successful 2015 mayoral campaign, when voters ousted Dayne Walling, who along with other officials, initially told residents the water was safe but blamed state and federal agencies for the problems. She said then that residents need leaders who will "speak out" and called for a federal investigation into the water crisis.

Weaver didn't reply to a message left by The Associated Press through a spokeswoman. She has said previously that she's "doing the job" voters elected her to do and denied being offered bribes from the trash hauler or its affiliates.

Her most significant challenger Tuesday might be Scott Kincaid, who served on the city council for more than 30 years and left it to run against her. He has received significant donations from labor organizations in a union-heavy town.

This year's recall election will be different than past ones in which voters only decided whether to oust the mayor but voted later on a replacement. Due to a 2012 state law, both decisions will be made Tuesday and the winner will serve the final two years of the mayor's current term.

Water remains a big concern for many residents, including social worker Kathy Bamba, who is still on bottled water because her tap water still shows higher-than-acceptable lead and copper levels. She said she's concerned the city lacks a long-term solution.

Bamba said she's supporting Herbert Winfrey, her neighbor and current councilman. She believes "he's the most level-headed" and understands the needs of residents.

Bamba said she has struggled to regain confidence in the system after what Flint has endured.

"I don't believe I will ever trust it because so many people were sick," said Bamba, who was born in Flint and returned several years ago. Still, she added, "I always have hope for Flint — this is my hometown."

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