Michigan has stripped the City of Flint of the ability to sue over the lead contamination of its water supply.
As the Detroit Free Press reports, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver filed a notice of intent to sue the State of Michigan with the Court of Claims back on March 24 — the last day of a 180-day limit from the time the city became aware of potential claims it could make against the state, in accordance with court rules.
Weaver and Flint officials, at the time of filing notice, “had no plans to sue the state but had to take action to reserve the city’s rights” should that legal action have been warranted in the future, according to the Free Press.
In April 2015, Flint gained back some autonomy with the removal of a controversial emergency managership, but — underlying the lawsuit issue — 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,” wrote the Free Press.
That board apparently didn’t find the notice to sue too amusing, and — despite it being a pure formality and preservation of protection for the people of Flint who had been poisoned by their government — cruelly and almost certainly retributively changed the rules.
For Flint to bring a lawsuit against Michigan, it now must be granted approval by Snyder’s state-appointed board.
Simply put, Flint has to ask the state for permission to sue it — something the already-embittered board couldn’t possibly be expected to grant.
As if the lead-poisoned people of Flint — who are still relying on donations of bottled water for all their drinking, bathing, and cooking needs over two years after the discovery of lead contamination — have not suffered enough already in Snyder’s hands.
Apparently, the notice of intent from Flint hit a sore spot with state officials, who had at the time already granted $67 million in state aid and were actively deliberating $165 million in additional assistance.
Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter explained, as quoted the Free Press, “a reckless lawsuit could throw the state budget into disarray and undermine everything we’ve done for the city.”
Both Snyder and Cotter requested Flint officials withdraw their intent notice — but on March 31 covertly used the power the board still holds over the city to change Flint governance to mandate state permission for legal action.
Citing the Receivership Transition Advisory Board’s website, the Free Press said the board wishes to ensure “a smooth transition” back to the city’s own governance by reviewing “major financial and policy decisions … to ensure that they maintain fiscal and organizational stability.”
Anna Heaton, spokesperson for Gov. Snyder, told the Free Press in an email Friday the governance shift was intended to bring more involvement from Flint City Council and city officials, ‘not just the city administrator,’ in further decisions concerning potential litigation.
But, she confirmed, “the [advisory board] resolution also clarified that its approval was required before the settlement or initiation of litigation.”
Flint’s chief legal officer, Stacy Erwin Oakes, wrote by email Friday, “the timing of the amendment speaks for itself.”
“Previously,” she continued, “the city administrator had discretionary authority regarding litigation, now the city, including but not limited to the chief legal officer can’t initiate litigation and assert its rights in court without state approval, through the [advisory board].
“Whether the … resolution stripping the city’s authority would survive a direct legal challenge is a question for another day. In the meantime, the city continues to be significantly under state control, even after the departure of the emergency manager, and while accumulating significant obligations as a result of the decisions made by, and/or at the direction of emergency managers.”
Flint residents, now dependent on water donations from activists and advocates, as well as a modest supply from the government, have nearly run out of bottled water several times. Despite widespread media coverage and concordant public outrage concerning the city’s drinking water crisis, the situation has not improved for the largely impoverished population of Flint — who, incidentally, have been forced to continue paying for the lead-tainted water.
“Many residents, including the elderly and those without cars, are struggling to travel to bottled water distribution sites, and confusion remains about how to install and use home faucet filters,” Pastor Allen Overton of the Concerned Pastors for Social Action explained, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This situation will not improve until a federal court steps in to compel state and city officials to act.”
Now, however, the revelation of the State of Michigan’s tying of City of Flint officials’ hands presents additional arduous, if not impossible, barriers to possible relief.