State board lets Flint sue without needing approval

Detroit News staff and wire reports

A state board overseeing Flint as it transitions from state emergency management has reversed course and lifted the city’s ability to sue without first getting approval from the panel.

The Receivership Transition Advisory Board on Wednesday amended a resolution passed in March, just days after Flint served notice it might file a lawsuit against Michigan over its lead-contaminated water supply.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver welcomed the decision. “At this time we are still trying to work with the state to right this wrong, and have no plans to sue,” she said in a statement. “If state leaders honor their commitment to do what is best for the citizens and the city of Flint, we will see evidence of that commitment in the city and will have no reason to take legal action.”

State Department of Treasury spokeswoman Danelle Gittus said the change clarifies the earlier order, and it was never the board’s intent to block Flint from suing “but rather to provide oversight of settlements related to litigation and labor disputes.”

The decision came a day after Democrats in Michigan’s congressional delegation called on the U.S. Department of Justice to review the panel’s action in March. The five Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, argued the move was illegal and raised issues of constitutional due process, equal protection and environmental justice, noting that Flint has a majority-black population.

“Unfortunately, it now appears that the state is attempting to further abuse its authority under the (Emergency Manager Law) by preventing the city of Flint from pursuing legal claims should the state fail to make the city and its residents whole,” the lawmakers wrote Tuesday in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The letter concerned the March 31 vote by the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board requiring that city-initiated litigation be approved by the board, which is stacked with gubernatorial appointees. The recommendation was approved by the state treasurer on April 5.

The Receivership Transition Advisory Board was put in place by the state last year and empowered to veto budgets after the city’s last emergency manager departed in April 2015. The panel’s members were appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The board approved the resolution a week after the city of Flint filed a notice in the state Court of Claims to preserve its right to sue the state over the city’s water becoming contaminated with toxic lead.

At the time, board Chairman Frederick Headen, a Michigan Treasury Department official, indicated the resolution was needed to give the City Council more oversight of lawsuit settlements.

Snyder’s office has denied that the board’s resolution was designed to shield the administration from a lawsuit over the water crisis, saying the resolution was in line with the board’s role in overseeing large expenditures by the City Council.

With Wednesday’s approval, the resolution is altered so only the proposed settlement of litigation — not its initiation –– would require approval by the Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Reached Wednesday, Kildee said he hoped the move would allow the city to move forward with cases, but “we’re going to have to take a look at what it really means. ... Unless it is a full restoration of the city’s democratic rights, I won’t be satisfied.”

In their letter Tuesday, the Democratic lawmakers said the state board had been reacting in “apparent retaliation” to Flint’s “routine notice” of intention to file suit against the state, which is necessary under Michigan law to preserve the ability to seek legal redress.

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 the leaching of lead into the drinking water and “irreversible” damage to municipal infrastructure.