Michigan Removed City of Flint's Ability to Sue the State in Water Crisis

All lawsuits must be approved by a state-appointed board — even if the city wishes to sue the state of Michigan.

Published Sep 19, 2016

 (Matthew Smith/Flickr)
Image Via Matthew Smith/Flickr

A board appointed by the state of Michigan has effectively removed the city of Flint's ability to sue.  According to the Detroit Free Press, the city of Flint is still under partial control of the state as it transitions from emergency management:

Though Flint has not been under a state-appointed emergency manager since April 2015, the state still exerts partial control over the city through a five-member Receivership Transition Advisory Board, whose members are appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The board moved quickly to change the rules under which Flint is governed so that the city cannot file a lawsuit without first getting approval from that state-appointed board.

In other words, Flint cannot sue the state without getting the state to sign off on it first.

On 24 March 2016, the city of Flint filed a Notice of Intent to Sue the state; city officials said at the time that they had no immediate plans to sue, but had to file the notice of intent in order to preserve their right to do so:

The city's new chief legal officer, Stacy Erwin Oakes, stated that the city filed the notice over damages to the municipal water system and associated costs.

Although some state lawmakers immediately criticized the move as potentially hindering the state's ability to aid the city in repairs, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver stated that the notice was sent purely due to a legal requirement. She said that the city would have lost their right to sue in the future if it had not filed the "Notice of Intention to File a Claim" by the March 25th deadline. She noted that they city does not have any intention of filing a lawsuit now, but had to keep the right to sue open for the city if issues arise in the future.

A week later, the state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board quickly amended its rules during a 31 March 2016 special meeting

NOW THEREFORE, be it resolved by the Board as follows: That it be recommended to the State Treasurer that Paragraph 21 of Flint Emergency Manager Ambrose Order No. 3 be amended to read as follows: Review current and potential litigation and labor disputes with the City Attorney and Mayor. and as needed the Board, and have complete decision making authority on behalf of the City, on &1 mrner5 of litigation and labor disputes, including the ability to settle or initiate lawsuits and resolve labor disputes. The Mayor and City Council shall be consulted on such matters prier to implementation.  CHIEF LEGAL OFFICER, CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER, MAYOR, AND CITY COUNCIL. AND WITH THE CONCURRENCE OF THE CHIEF LEGAL OFFICER, PROPOSE TO THE MAYOR. AND CITY COUNCIL CONSISTENT WITH SECTION 4-604 OF THE CITY CHARTER, THE SETTLEMENT OR INITIATION OF LITIGATION OR RESOLUTION OF A LABOR DISPUTE. A PROPOSED SETTLEMENT OR INITIATION OF LITIGATION OR RESOLUTION OF A LABOR DISPUTE SHALL CONTAIN A DETAILED STATEMENT BY THE CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER INDICATING THE ESTIMATED FINANCIAL IMPACT UPON THE CITY FOR EACH FISCAL YEAR AFFECTED BY THE PROPOSED SETTLEMENT OR INITIATION OF LITIGATION OR RESOLUTION OF A LABOR DISPUTE. A PROPOSED SETTLEMENT OR INITIATION OF LITIGATION OR RESOLUTION OF A LABOR DISPUTE SHALL NOT BE EFFECTIVE UNLESS APPROVED BY THE BOARD.

The Flint water crisis began to unfold in 2015, when far higher than average levels of lead were detected in the city's drinking water just months after it switched from Detroit's water supply to the Flint River in order to save money.  After the switch, residents complained that they had suffered rashes and other unspecified illnesses, complaining that their water had a strange color and odor. A General Motors plant in Flint also stopped using the water, saying it was corroding car parts.

The concerns went largely unaddressed until September 2015, when a group of doctors urged people to stop using Flint's water, saying they had detected abnormally high levels of lead in childrens' blood.   Flint reconnected to the Detroit water supply the next month. 

The resulting media attention led to a wave of resignations from city, state, and federal officials, and an even larger wave of finger-pointing as lawmakers debated who, exactly, should take the blame.  

An outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease also appears to have coincided with the switch to water from the Flint River. However, Michigan state officials have evidently blocked investigation into the outbreak:

The department claims further information on the case was not available due to the agency being prohibited from fully investigating cases in Genesee County due to a court order.

State officials have said the protective orders, obtained by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton and Attorney General Bill Schuette, prohibit DHHS and the DEQ from interaction the Genesee County Health Department or McLaren Hospital on anything related to Flint and water crisis.  

Attorneys for McLaren, Schuette and Leyton have argued the orders from Neithercut are protecting the integrity of a criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis, including a Legionnaire's outbreak that resulted in 12 deaths from 2014 and 2015 in the county.

On 14 September 2016, the retired director of the state Department of Health and Human Services' Bureau of Epidemiology pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of neglect of duty as part of a plea agreement. Corrinne Miller failed to publicly report the Legionnaire's outbreak, and also was accused of instructing workers to delete emails about health problems suffered by residents as a result of the contaminated water. 

Brooke Binkowski is a former editor for Snopes.

Read More

a Member

Your membership is the foundation of our sustainability and resilience.


Ad-Free Browsing on
Members-Only Newsletter
Cancel Anytime