Chairman: Flint doesn’t need ‘finger-pointing’ by panel

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The chairman of a special legislative committee investigating Flint’s lead-contaminated water emergency said Tuesday he doesn’t want the panel’s proceedings to be marred by political “finger-pointing.”

“The last thing the people of Flint need is more finger-pointing and combative dialogue,” said Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican chairing the Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency. “We are here to provide oversight and produce results.”

The special committee of four Republicans and two Democrats held its first hearing Tuesday morning in Lansing, just as a congressional committee resumed its public hearings on Flint’s water crisis in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said the panel should be the Legislature’s chance to hold state agencies and officials accountable for allowing Flint’s water to go untreated for controlling lead pipes from leaching the toxic metal into the water supply.

“I don’t want us to get confused between the difference between political finger-pointing and accountability,” Irwin said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has not granted the committee subpoena power, though members from both parties said they want to hear testimony from Gov. Rick Snyder, former Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and Flint’s former emergency managers.

Rep. Ed McBroom, a Dickinson County Republican, said he wants to use the proceedings to “put the bureaucracy around here on notice that the Legislature’s back in town, back on its game when it comes to holding the bureaucracy accountable.”

“They can’t just run roughshod over us, even if we are term-limited and just here for a few years and have very little time to try and catch up on how to do this,” said McBroom, who is in his third and final term in the Michigan House of Representatives.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint is the other Democrat on the committee.

“We have the heavy burden, but we also have a true opportunity to … restore the faith that my community and others across the state have lost in our system (of government),” Ananich said.

The hearing began with testimony from Auditor General Doug Ringler and his staff of a recent audit conducted of the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

The chairman had Ringler and his staff testify under oath and penalty of perjury — a rarely used legislative oversight power.

The audit concluded the DEQ office charged with regulating municipal drinking water did not deceive the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about Flint’s compliance with federal regulations of lead in water.

Ringler and his auditors also discussed a letter they sent Ananich in late December addressing a series of questions the senator had about the DEQ’s water quality testing and oversight.

Ananich questioned why the Auditor General’s office accepted a minor edit to the letter that appears to have come from Gov. Rick Snyder’s office instead of directly from the DEQ.

A Dec. 23, 2015 email recently released by Snyder’s office shows Wyant forwarded the draft audit report to Snyder aides Rich Baird and Harvey Hollins and then-Press Secretary Dave Murray, who forwarded it to then-Communications Director Meegan Holland.

The change made to report was a rewording of the history of Flint’s water plant being used for an emergency water source in the event Detroit’s water system failed, according to records reviewed by The Detroit News.

The Auditor General’s office sent the report via email to Wyant and his deputy, Jim Sygo, and noted “we keep this document confidential.”

Ringler said it’s common practice for his office to share an audit report with a state agency the day before it is publicly released to ensure there are no factual inaccuracies.

Ananich described the edit as a “whitewash” during the hearing.

“It doesn’t seem like a common practice for the executive office to have a comment period (on an audit), I understand the department, of course,” Ananich told reporters after the hearing. “... It’s a practice I think that is questionable, and it needs to be answered why it happened.”

Gov. Rick Snyder has blamed the DEQ water office for not requiring Flint to add corrosion control chemicals to the city’s river water from April 2014 until October 2015, when the city switched back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water source.

The governor asked Ringler on Friday to conduct an investigation of the Department of Health and Human Services’ response to elevated lead levels in Flint residents and a possible connection to a deadly spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases that corresponded with the city’s use of Flint River water.

Snyder will testify Thursday before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

McBroom and Ananich both said the Republican governor should appear before the legislative committee as well.

“I think anyone who had any sort of role in this tragedy should be here and be compelled to answer questions,” Ananich said. “I think swearing people under oath was a good start.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood