Flint reveals it may sue state over water crisis

Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

Lansing — Mayor Karen Weaver said Friday she is not currently planning to sue the state over the Flint water crisis despite filing a “notice of intention” to do so, a development that caught the Snyder administration off guard and prompted criticism from House Speaker Kevin Cotter.

Weaver’s March 24 filing with the state Court of Claims cited “grossly negligent oversight” by the Department of Environmental Quality, whose decisions not to require corrosion control chemicals led to lead leaching into the drinking water and “irreversible” damage to municipal infrastructure.

The filing was intended to preserve Flint’s ability to sue the state, according to Weaver, who said she does not plan to exercise that right at this time.

“It is my expectation that we can continue working with the state to help Flint recover from this water crisis,” Weaver said in a statement. “I called Governor Snyder today to re-affirm our commitment to work together for the benefit of the families of Flint.”

But news about a potential lawsuit earlier Friday riled Republican leaders in Lansing who are considering additional assistance for the beleaguered city.

The Snyder administration, in a Friday letter to a city attorney, asked Flint to withdraw the notice “because it is factually and legally unsupported and it creates an unnecessary conflict between the parties that will damage ongoing efforts to resolve this crisis.”

Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, called the notice of intent “very unfortunate and very reckless on the part of the mayor.”

The Legislature has approved $67 million in funding for Flint. Cotter said last week he would be open to further supplemental spending proposals once the state budget is completed in June.

Snyder has requested another $165 million for Flint, with $126 million recommended as supplemental funding in this fiscal year, and another $39 million recommended for next fiscal year that begins in October.

“I think that the mayor’s actions here could potentially blow up the state’s checkbook, and I think it’s going to have a real chilling effect on the House, as to providing any further resources in the interim,” Cotter said.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, defended Weaver. While he won’t comment on legal action, spokeswoman Angela Wittrock said he feels “strongly that what we have here is a mayor doing everything in her power to get clean and safe drinking water into her community, and a speaker who wants to make this a political issue, which is incredibly disappointing.”

The notice claims that because of decisions by the state, the city “has suffered or will suffer” damage to its municipal water system, costs related to the emergency, medical claims, reduced property values, reputational damage, permanent loss of water system customers, increased legal liability and more.

Flint City Attorney Stacy Erwin Oakes said the legal notice was filed March 24 on the 180-day deadline to preserve the city’s right to sue the state. She said Flint wants the state to cover all legal bills stemming from dozens of civil lawsuits against the city because Snyder-appointed emergency managers switched the city of Flint River water.

“All people have determined it wasn’t the fault of the residents of the city of Flint, therefore they should not have to pay the bill,” Oakes told The Detroit News. “It is our intent to continue to work with the state, the governor.”

Flint also wants the state to pay for legal representation for city employees being deposed in criminal investigations launched by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, Attorney General Bill Schuette and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit.

“It would be nice to have some coordinated efforts between these depositions,” said Oakes, a former state representative who became Flint’s top attorney on Monday.

Depositions ‘very taxing’

On Thursday, Schuette’s special prosecutor, Todd Flood, deposed the first of several city employees who have been subpoenaed, Oakes said. Flood wants to depose more city employees on Monday, she said.

“That in of itself is very taxing on the city,” Oakes said.

Unlike Snyder, the cash-strapped city has not yet hired criminal defense attorneys, Oakes said.

“Anything said in those criminal depositions can be used against us civilly,” she said.

Snyder has retained the Warner Norcross & Judd LLP law firm for up to $800,000 in legal expenses to represent him and his office in the criminal investigations. Separately, Snyder’s office has a $400,000 contract with Detroit attorney Eugene Driker and his law firm, Barris, Scott, Denn & Driker law firm of Detroit, to represent the governor and his office in the civil lawsuits.

The potential legal action points to a growing rift between the Democratic mayor and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who this week described their relationship as “a challenging situation.”

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said Friday the administration was “very surprised” to hear about the court filing, noting aides for the governor and mayor “talk daily” about the water crisis response.

“If the goal is to have an open dialogue, as partners to solve problems, that is much more difficult if one of the partners is suing the other,” Adler said.

Friends or foes?

The state and city are co-defendants in class-action lawsuits over the Flint water crisis, but a suit by the city would put them in an adversarial position.

The notice was served to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Environmental Quality. It names the state as a defendant, along with DEQ employees Mike Prysby, Steve Busch, Adam Rosenthal and Pat Cook.

“The damage to the water system infrastructure by the MDEQ employees’ grossly negligent oversight is irreversible,” reads the court document.

Snyder has criticized department employees for failing to use “common sense” in not requiring the city to add corrosion control treatments to the Flint River water. The harsh water ended up damaging aging pipes that leached lead into the system.

Weaver has been asking both the state and federal government to provide additional funding for her “fast start” program to remove underground lead service lines throughout the city.

“I’m not going to get rid of them; the city is the party that is responsible for replacing lead pipes,” Snyder told a at a journalism conference in New York on Thursday. “We want to be a partner and figure out how to get them replaced. It’s a question of time frame and resources.”


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