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Bipartisan report: Change Michigan’s EM law

Michael Gerstein, and Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — State lawmakers should consider changing Michigan’s emergency manager law and replace the state’s lead pipes, according to a sweeping new report with dozens of policy recommendations released Wednesday.

A legislative committee comprised of four Republicans and two Democrats issued the report after six hearings, which recommends changing state law to provide for a committee of three emergency managers instead of a single person in financially struggling cities where they might be deployed.

That three-person “financial management team” would include a financial expert, a local government operations expert and a local ombudsman, according to the report, which recommends 36 policy changes in total.

An earlier report from a different task force with members appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder blamed emergency managers for the decision to use the Flint River as Flint’s main water source in April 2014.

Lead leached from the city’s aging lead pipes into the water supply after state officials failed to require federally mandated corrosion control chemicals following the switch.

“While it is incontrovertible that strong mechanisms to put failing localities back on course are necessary, no matter how inconvenient or unpopular they might be, it stands to reason that the public health and residents’ grievances must play into management decisions,” the report said. “Consequently, the Legislature should consider alternatives to the emergency manager option that allow for more community input and better-motivated decision-making.”

So far, Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office has charged nine current or former government officials in an ongoing criminal investigation. Schuette’s office has also indicated that Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon may be a target in the investigation, according to Lyon’s lawyers.

Democrats and others have argued for years that the state’s emergency manager law runs counter to the spirit of Democracy because a state-appointed emergency manager can override the wishes of elected City Councils. But Republicans have rebuked that criticism when deploying the managers in cash-strapped cities, arguing city officials are not managing financial resources well enough and call for drastic measures.

The report marks a rare moment in which Republicans and Democrats agree on overhauling the state’s controversial emergency manager law in the wake of the Flint water crisis.

The report also recommends emergency managers should not be able to change a public drinking water source without holding a public vote that shows “the approval of experts and majority of the electors in the locality,” the report said.

Those emergency managers should also be liable for any bodily harm they might cause, the report said, which recommends stripping them of civil lawsuit immunity and requiring them to post a $5 million bond that could be forfeited “in cases of gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct.”

The managers should also monitor a website on which public comments from city residents would be posted, according to the report, addressing pointed criticisms that officials were not paying attention to citizens who had complained for months about the foul odor and bad taste of city tap water after Flint switched its water source.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, told reporters on Wednesday that among the 36 policy recommendations in the long-awaited report, “taking care of our infrastructure” in Flint and the state at large is the most important issue. He added that “we also do need to go back and look at the emergency manager” and take “a more balanced look at how we’re affecting communities as we take a very difficult situation and try to rectify it.”

Other changes and criticism

The report recommends creating a new ombudsman for state employees who would allow for confidential reporting of misconduct, such as suspected law violations, departmental decisions that may endanger public safety or mismanagement of public funds.

It also urged lawmakers to consider changing the state’s civil service rules, stiffer penalties for misconduct in public office, a new commission to oversee the Department of Environmental Quality, a public health emergency alert system, a new rule requiring state and local health departments to “promptly share medical and epidemiological information” and more “robust blood-level screening policies” for school kids, among a host of other policy suggestions.

“It’s a lot of good recommendations that I think will help protect families not only in my community, but all across the state,” said Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who was on the committee that issued the report. “And obviously getting it done is gonna be our main focus.”

Ananich said the proposed new commission to helm the DEQ would make sure department officials are “held accountable.”

But the other Democrat on the committee was openly critical of the report. Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, challenged the idea that the report was “bipartisan,” and said he was not given an opportunity to sign it or suggest changes before its release. He said he was not notified that the report was completed until Tuesday evening.

Irwin criticized the Republican-led committee for not completely investigating Flint’s water crisis, which he said “put the committee in a position to not come up with the best solutions because we don’t even know what happened yet.”

Stamas said the committee did not take testimony from Snyder or from former emergency managers in Flint because members reviewed other reports that included the governor’s testimony. He said they did not want to “be repetitive” or spend time identifying “who is to blame.”

“Not all of our members have agreed with everything in it,” Stamas said of the report. “But at the same time I think we’ve covered a very large part of what the different issues were.”

Stamas said lawmakers can act on 14 of the 36 recommendations, some as soon as Thursday in the Senate.

Former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, who co-chaired the separate Flint Water Advisory Task Force appointed by Snyder, called the proposed three-person financial management team an “extremely positive” recommendation that addresses shortcomings of the emergency manager law.

The task force was concerned by what appeared to be a “subject manager vacuum” and a lack of broad expertise by emergency managers who ran Flint before and during the water crisis, he said.

“This would go a long way toward addressing the whole issue of not really having or having access to subject manager expertise and the experience you need to manage a city,” said Sikkema, noting he had not yet reviewed the full report.

The task force had recommended an ombudsman, also proposed Wednesday by the legislative committee, a position Sikkema said could provide a “single focus” of “hearing from and representing citizens and their concerns as decisions get made.”

While the Michigan Environmental Council supports many of the report’s recommendations, the group criticizes creating another commission to oversee the DEQ.

Chris Kolb, the group’s president and a co-chair of Snyder’s Flint task force, said he has “serious concerns about the proposal to put a governor-appointed commission in charge of running the DEQ and selecting its own director. The proposed makeup of that commission would give industry control over a department that exists to protect the environment and human health. It’s a classic case of setting the fox to guard the henhouse.”

mgerstein@detroitnews.com

joosting@detroitnews.com