DETROIT -- The city of Flint, Michigan, will continue to recover from a lead-contaminated water crisis with a new mayor, who will in turn work to rebuild residents' shattered trust.
Former Flint city councilman and current third-term state Rep. Sheldon Neeley on Tuesday defeated incumbent Mayor Karen Weaver, who served one term and survived a recall effort in 2017. She was elected in 2015, when voters ousted Dayne Walling in the wake of a crisis arising after the city turned to the Flint River for its water supply.
The water switch was made while Flint was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager and was waiting for a pipeline to be built from Lake Huron. The river water wasn't properly treated, unleashing the toxin into homes throughout Flint. State and federal agencies, who initially said the water was safe, were later blamed for the crisis.
Paul Rozycki, a retired political science professor who taught at Flint's Mott Community College, said it was a tight race with low turnout so it's hard to say what definitively made the difference. But he believes an "anti-incumbent element" and a lingering lack of trust among the electorate played a role — something he identified as a strong undercurrent in the 2017 recall election.
Even in recovery, many Flint residents have been unhappy, because they felt nobody has been held responsible for the contamination of their water supply during a period when the state managed the majority-black city of 100,000 and switched water sources to save money.
"There's still that distrust for folks in power and I think Neeley capitalized on that pretty well," Rozycki said. "It was more of a distrust of City Hall in general, which included Weaver. ... That distrust didn't do her any good."
During her campaign, Weaver, who beat Neeley by 230 votes in the August primary, contended Flint has made significant progress since high levels of lead were found in the water. That included great strides toward finding replacing lead and galvanized pipes. On Tuesday night, she said, "I fought a good fight and we'll see," adding that she is not ruling out a recount.
Still, Neeley said community trust has been lacking and officials should boost transparency by publicizing financial information, such as how money is spent and who has signed contracts with the city. He also plans to require a financial audit soon after taking office.
"The community wants to see positive things moving forward," he said. "You just have to stand upright, honor ourselves and I think that speaks volumes."
Rozycki said the community's trust won't return just because of replaced pipes, but that's part of it.
"I guess the reality is if we go a number of years where nothing goes seriously wrong, gradually it will get rebuilt," he said.