Judge gives Flint one day to decide water source

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — A federal judge has given the city of Flint and its council one day to determine plans for a long-term water source.

U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson said he will give city officials until Tuesday night to vote on the water source after holding a hearing Monday in which he ordered the city of Flint, state and water authorities to caucus and mediate a solution.

"I applaud your work," the judge told the gathered council members Monday evening. "I look forward to your deliberations and your decision tomorrow evening."

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has asked Lawson to empower Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to sign a long-term contract with the Detroit-area Great Lakes Water Authority to supply drinking water to city residents despite no approval from the City Council. Weaver supports the deal and has argued that the council’s delays threaten the city with possible bankruptcy. Flint officials say the delay has cost the cash-strapped city $6.7 million.

Every City Council member from Flint — with five new members — attended Monday’s hearing in Detroit. The council’s attorney, Peter Doerr, earlier asked Lawson for another week “based on the amount of progress I’ve seen.” The council voted earlier Monday to meet on Nov. 27 and make a decision on the water source at that meeting.

Lawson said a decision is important because “there are health and financial considerations” at stake for Flint residents and their water source. The judge said he could appoint a “special master” to carry out his orders or put the city under “receivership,” the latter of which he decried for the sake of letting Flint govern themselves.

Lawyers for the state argued that repeated demands for the Flint council to approve a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority or an alternative source have been met with months of delay and inaction. The DEQ has alleged the council’s inaction endangers Flint residents’ health and saddled utility payers with bigger bills.

Nate Gambill, an assistant attorney general representing the DEQ, implored Lawson to act Monday, even suggesting that he have a post-dated decision deciding for the council on Nov. 28 in case the council decides to further delay a decision.

Gambill said a delay beyond next Monday would cost the city another $1.8 million. If approved, the total would fall to $445,000, he told the judge.

Charles Boike, who represents the city of Flint, even jostled with the judge about finding the council and in essence the city in contempt of court over the delay, with Lawson quipping from the bench: “Did you bring your toothbrush?”

New council members were elected in Nov. 7’s recall election of Weaver, which kept the mayor in office but ushered in new council members including a new president.

“We’re asking for a week’s delay since they’ve met on four occasions” since they were elected,” Doerr told Lawson.

The mayor has been at odds with a majority of the nine City Council members who wanted to further study the 30-year agreement with the Detroit-area water authority and hire a North Dakota consultant to give them options.

Last month, Lawson cleared the way for Weaver to proceed in her efforts. But he said in the Oct. 27 ruling that escrowed signatures on the 30-year deal had lapsed and the master agreement had expired. Lawson indicated he couldn’t order the city of Flint to execute the agreement.

“The failure of leadership, in light of the past crises and manifold warnings related to the Flint water system, is breathtaking,” the judge wrote in the ruling.

In the filing, the DEQ said a revised 30-year agreement has been negotiated and approved by the Great Lakes Water Authority, the state, Genesee County Drain Commission and the regional Karegnondi Water Authority, which initially was to be Flint’s water source but now becomes a backup system under the 30-year agreement.