Chairman ends Flint hearings without Snyder testimony

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — State legislators examining the Flint water crisis will shift their focus from public hearings to policy development, the Republican chairman said Tuesday, frustrating Democrats who wanted to seek testimony from Gov. Rick Snyder and others.

Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican who chairs the committee, made clear from the outset that the panel would not function as an investigatory body. Instead, it was created to explore policies that may have led to the crisis and develop recommendations in response.

Other investigations “are still ongoing for accountability, but with the amount of information this committee has received, I think the Flint residents deserve the opportunity for solutions to start, and I want to move forward with that,” he said.

But one of the panel’s two Democrats criticized the move.

“I’m not satisfied, and I don’t think the work of the committee is done,” said Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. “…I think for this committee to have credibility, we needed to hear from the governor, from the emergency managers, from the people who were central to this crisis, and we haven’t.”

The Joint Select Committee on The Flint Water Public Health Emergency met six times since March and heard more than 60 hours of testimony from local residents, members of the governor’s Flint Water Task Force, current directors of the state environmental and health departments and others.

The task force has blamed the crisis on the failure of the state Department of Environmental Quality and state-appointed emergency managers to insist the city of Flint use corrosion controls when it switched to the Flint River as its drinking water source in April 2014. As a result, the corrosive river water caused lead water service lines to leach the toxic metal into the drinking water and contaminate it.

Testimony from U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will also be entered into the state record for state panel members to consider, Stamas said. Snyder, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and others testified before the Congressional committee in March.

Stamas said he thought the ongoing state and federal investigations into the Flint crisis would make it difficult to get other former Flint emergency managers to testify before the state panel. He did not rule out the possibility of holding another public hearing if new developments arise.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he would have liked to hear more testimony on the Flint crisis but understood Stamas’ decision to move the process along.

“I think a lot more oversight can be done, and I think it should be,” Ananich said.

While the public hearings are on hold, Stamas said committee members will continue to work on the development of policy recommendations, a process he hopes to complete by the end of the month.

Republicans and Democrats are both expecting the Flint water crisis to spur changes to the state’s controversial emergency manager law.

“I think the committee has a number of ideas to do something there,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

He suggested other policy recommendations could include infrastructure funding proposals and “maybe even some ideas on how the governor’s office can improve their communication and ability to do things.”

The committee heard testimony Tuesday from the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, whose executive vice president said the state should be investing hundreds of millions of dollars more each year to ensure safe drinking water.

Snyder and Republican lawmakers strengthened the state’s existing emergency manager statute in 2011, giving appointees greater power to make unilateral decisions, including the end of labor agreements. Voters overturned the law in 2012, but legislators quickly approved a similar replacement version.

“What’s happened in these sort of three iterations over 20 years is the emergency manager law has gotten far more dictatorial in its form and its shape,” task force co-chair and former Republican state Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema said Friday on WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.”

Sikkeman and other task force members recommended legislators identify measures to “compensate for the loss of checks and balances” under the emergency manager law or consider alternatives. The state must provide emergency managers with proper support and expertise required to make important municipal decisions, according to the task force report.

Stamas said the committee may also recommend ways to change the “culture” in the governor’s office and state departments, where communication breakdowns slowed the initial response to the Flint crisis.

“I would hope we come out with a bipartisan solution,” he said.