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Snyder officials inoculate state from Flint water suits

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration quietly inoculated itself from being sued by Flint over the city’s lead-contaminated water crisis by requiring that litigation be approved by an oversight board stacked with gubernatorial appointees.

The Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board passed a resolution on March 31 eliminating the city administrator’s ability to initiate litigation without first getting approval from the board.

Flint’s Receivership Transition Advisory Board, or RTAB, was put in place to have veto power on budgets after the city’s last emergency manager left town in April 2015. The panel’s members are all appointees of Snyder.

The board’s action came seven days after the city of Flint filed a notice in the state Court of Claims preserving its right to sue the state over the city’s water becoming contaminated with toxic lead.

At the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board meeting on March 31, chairman Frederick Headen, a Michigan Treasury Department official, portrayed the resolution as being needed to give City Council more oversight of lawsuit settlements, according to a transcript of the meeting.

Headen emphasized the new checks and balances being put in place for settling litigation and the board members did not discuss the resolution’s broader control over Flint filing suit against the state.

“And, of course, the most important feature would, again, be the restoration of the City Council’s role in this process,” said Headen, who is a legal adviser to State Treasurer Nick Khouri.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver “only recently” learned that the RTAB’s action prevents Flint from initiating any kind of lawsuit without prior board approval, Weaver spokeswoman Kristin Moore said.

“This was done without her knowledge,” Moore said Monday.

A Treasury Department spokeswoman did not make Headen available for comment Monday.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton denied the Flint board’s resolution was designed to shield the administration from a lawsuit over the water crisis.

“That was a clarification saying ‘Yes, we still need to sign off,’ ” Heaton said. “The RTAB is already in place to sign off on City Council decisions to spend large sums of money.”

The Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board voted on the resolution during an afternoon meeting on the same day news was breaking that Flint had filed an intent to sue. Other Flint RTAB members present for the meeting were Joel Ferguson, Michael Townsend and Michael Finney, according to the minutes.

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.

Republican lawmakers reacted angrily to news of Weaver signaling the city’s plans to possibly sue the state while they were considering $165 million in new aid for Flint’s public health crisis.