Recall petition filed against Benton Harbor mayor over lead crisis

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Benton Harbor City Commission has proclaimed a state of emergency amid a lead-in-water crisis in which state officials last week promised an "all hands on deck" approach after three straight years of lead safety violations.

The decision was made at Monday night's commission meeting to give the mayor more powers to deal with the crisis in hopes of working more closely with state and federal leaders, officials said.

But on the day Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also came to visit Benton Harbor under criticism her administration had failed to combat the lead crisis, one resident filed a recall petition against Mayor Marcus Muhammad, saying he couldn't be trusted to lead the city because he did not warn residents that the water was unsafe to consume.

"He came out (with concerns) three years later. It's mind-boggling" said Quacy Roberts, 45, who filed the petition in Berrien County. "He really hasn't done nothing about the water situation. It should have been three years earlier."

The commission is the legislative and governing body of the city. The emergency authorizes Muhammad to work full-time to lead the city during the crisis in working with state and federal officials and establishing a community response team to meet once a week.

Residents of Benton Harbor receive cases of bottled water on Oct. 7, 2021, from Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency through a state-funded program. The group distributed 1,638 cases of bottled water due to unsafe levels of lead in the city's drinking water.

Muhammad could not be reached for comment about the recall petition. He said earlier at an afternoon news conference with some city leaders that Whitmer came to Benton Harbor "because she wanted to listen and she wanted to learn.

"This gives the city of Benton Harbor another layer of action, working with the office of city manager, working with clergy ... working directly with state officials," Muhammad said.

Rev. Edward Pinkney, the president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council activist group and a critic of Muhammad, said that while he supports the emergency declaration, the mayor must go.

"We can't afford three more years of him," Pinkney said. "He's not really doing anything. It's really the governor who's coming in and the only reason she's doing it is because we filed that petition" with the Environmental Protection Agency to secure safe drinking water for Benton Harbor.

"Nothing's being done because of him, nothing. He might like to take the credit for it, but that's not reality," Pinkney added.

Whitmer made a surprise Tuesday visit to Benton Harbor to meet with residents and local leaders, following up on last week's promise by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrest that the state will find millions of dollars needed to replace lead service lines in 18 months, calling it an “appropriate escalation."

Duane Seats, the mayor pro-tem and commissioner at large, said it was important to give the mayor "full power, full strength" to deal with the crisis.

"We've heard the cry of the people and the cry of the people is that this is an emergency," Seats said. "And we understand it's an emergency, and we do need our mayor to be here full-time."

The recently signed $70 billion state budget includes a $10 million appropriation for Benton Harbor lead service line replacement. An executive directive by Whitmer's office will continue the delivery of bottled water, health care and other services for Benton Harbor residents.

In a statement, Whitmer called on the Republican-run state Legislature "to fully fund lead service line replacement" with an additional $11.4 million to meet the deadline of 18 months.

"Every Michigander deserves safe drinking water," Whitmer said. "Today, I visited Benton Harbor to hear from community leaders doing the work on the ground and residents living through water challenges every day. Our work will build on the executive directive I signed last week to pursue an all-hands-on-deck approach to protect access to safe drinking water right now and make lasting investments in water infrastructure.

"I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children. That’s why we will not rest until every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe."

One Republican legislative leader last week indicated support for directing more aid toward replacing Benton Harbor's lead pipes while criticizing two years of Whitmer administration inaction.

"Lead line replacement is a long-term solution that absolutely must be achieved," said Abby Mitch, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, citing a Senate GOP plan for spending $600 million in federal dollars on statewide lead line replacement compared with a $200 million Whitmer plan.

"The promise of long-term solutions from the governor’s office should not be allowed to distract from the absolute failure of that office to protect the families in Benton Harbor," Mitch added. 

State officials have been under fire for not warning residents that the water was unsafe and that the corrosion control treatments were not working. But officials from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said they are seeing results now, an assertion environmentalists and water experts say is misleading.

The chairman of the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee, Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, has asked Whitmer's administration to produce a lengthy list of documents on its handling of elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor's drinking water.

The request for records from the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) came Monday, according to a letter obtained by The Detroit News. It's an initial signal the GOP-controlled Legislature plans to probe the water crisis in the southwest Michigan city of about 10,000 residents.

Meanwhile, Pinkney said the declaration is an important decision to help bring attention and more money to the city.

Pinkney said Tuesday the state's promise to replace the pipes in 18 months instead of an original five-year plan "is good but we want it done a little bit faster."

"To make it even more important, this will say that there's an urgent matter here," Pinkney said. "And we do have a problem. I've been trying to get the mayor to admit we have a problem. And now this tells the whole world that now the city of Benton Harbor has a real problem and we're going to do everything we can to resolve this problem."

Residents including Pinkney's group and national and state environmental organizations are seeking federal intervention in the impoverished Michigan city. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5 is reviewing the petition. It follows three consecutive years of lead-in-water results that have exceeded state and federal action levels.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.