Atlanta's 'sewer mayor' called back to service -- in Flint, Mich.

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

The focal point of the photo that came over the wire from Washington was Karen Weaver, the new mayor of the lead-poisoned city of Flint, Mich., sitting in a large hearing room on Capitol Hill.

But behind Weaver, barely visible, was a familiar, bespectacled figure. Shirley Franklin, once Atlanta’s “sewer mayor,” has been called back into service.

“There’s a tendency to say, ‘Let’s just send bottled water.’ That’s not the solution. You’ve got multiple problems now,” Franklin said one day after her D.C. appearance. Hers was a non-speaking role.

The city of Flint and the government malpractice that resulted in the contamination of its water delivery system is about to become a centerpiece of the Democratic race for president.

Hillary Clinton intends to make it so. She visited the town last weekend. Her daughter Chelsea was there Thursday. At the former secretary of state’s insistence, her next meeting with Bernie Sanders will be in Flint on March 6.

The rhetoric will be harsh. In New Orleans, the lack of government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was largely a matter of miscommunication and incompetence. The Flint disaster was caused by willful blindness to the lead that has leached into the bloodstreams of thousands of children and adults, documented by memos and emails.

Clinton isn’t the first to identify the political potency of the issue. Mayor Weaver last year defeated the incumbent who ignored and belittled concerns over water quality. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has seen his poll numbers tank.

Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when the city switched its water supply as a cost-saving measure. Improper treatment of water from the new source, the Flint River, caused the city’s older pipes to begin sending their lead through faucets in homes, schools and hospitals.

“The people of Flint have suffered because they were failed by all levels of government, and so it is understandable that there are questions at all levels of government,” Snyder said Friday, as he volunteered for his own appearance before Congress.

Franklin approves of the spotlight Hillary Clinton intends to shine on Flint – and not just because she’s a Clinton supporter. Which she is.

“It is smart. And it’s very helpful to Flint for her to focus on it. It’s helpful to everybody who’s trying to improve water infrastructure to get a national focus on what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s not sexy work. It’s not something that people just run to do.”

Franklin described her activity in the Flint situation as low-key and pro bono. She's heading up a small investigatory group for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“They asked me because, for eight years in office, I begged the U.S. Conference of Mayors to get serious about water. And they were looking for somebody who could both understand the issue and understand the politics,” Franklin said.

When she became mayor in 2002, Atlanta and its sewer system were habitual and egregious polluters of the Chattahoochee River. Franklin bestowed on herself the non-sexy title of “sewer mayor” and spearheaded a $4 billion infrastructure rebuilding program, most of which was mandated by the federal courts.

But it wasn’t just about sewers. People forget that the program included $1.7 billion for remaking the city’s water system, replacing many pipes that were first laid down in the 1890s.

So when it comes to water, Franklin knows whereof she speaks. Working with her on the Flint project is Rob Hunter, who headed up Atlanta’s water-and-sewer makeover during her administration.

Undermine a community’s infrastructure, and you undermine a community’s political foundation. Franklin outlined the many hurdles, beginning with lost trust. “They feel like they’ve been getting no information, bad information, or lies,” she said.

This isn’t mere philosophy. This is a broken social contract. Government untruths about water quality have destroyed the finances that underpin the Flint water system. Seventy-seven percent of the 20,000 households in the city aren’t paying their water bills.

“If your water were poisoned and you knew it, and if it was brown and you couldn’t drink it, and if it were ruining your household appliances, you wouldn’t pay your water bill, would you?” Franklin asked.

No. In fact, if someone threatened to cut off your water for nonpayment, you would simply offer a polite thank-you.

The pipes may be the easiest thing to fix, Franklin said. The city’s water plant is back to moving clean product from Lake Huron. The problem appears to be in the lead-lined pipes that bring the water to Flint’s doorsteps. Those need to be replaced, at somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000 a pop. Perhaps it can be done in two or three years.

No, the biggest problem is the lead that now lives in the residents of Flint. Deadly cases of Legionnaires’ disease could result in criminal charges as serious as manslaughter against negligent officials, a special counsel to the attorney general said last week.

Lead has long been identified with serious developmental problems in children. “How long does it take for the families to restore themselves, to manage whatever the damage is? According to the doctors, you work on that for the rest of their lives,” Franklin said. “The need for cash far exceeds anything anyone talks about.”

Flint offers multiple lessons. Infrastructure, the stuff beneath our feet, holds us together. It matters.

Competent government at all levels can be priceless. The city of Flint failed itself, and so was taken over by the state. Then the state failed, too.

This November, we will have a ballot issue in Georgia that would give state government the emergency power to step in and take over failing schools. It is nearly certain to pass. But the mess in Flint underlines the great responsibility that comes with any expansion of power.

Hold yourself out as the rescuer, and your moral responsibility increases a thousandfold.