Whitmer to state workers: Report 'imminent threats' to health immediately

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
A day after taking office, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed her first executive directive Wednesday requiring state employees to report immediately to their director any “imminent threat to the public health, safety, or welfare.”

Lansing — A day after taking office, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed her first executive directive Wednesday requiring state employees to report immediately to their director any “imminent threat to the public health, safety or welfare.”

The order comes after the Snyder administration was criticized for not addressing Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis in a timely way. Democrats also have contended the outgoing Republican administration did not do enough to address recently discovered chemical contamination from PFAS or "forever chemicals." 

Whitmer's order requires department directors to address the concerns if deemed an imminent threat and, lacking resources to do so, notify the governor’s chief compliance officer. Should a director determine there isn’t a threat, she or he must report his or her reasoning to the compliance officer.

Directors who believe a threat is not being addressed must go directly to Whitmer, Additionally, Whitmer's order requires department directors to remind employees of their whistleblower protections.

The order ensures “our government works for the people,” by empowering employees “on the front lines,” Whitmer said.

The directive did not detail what the penalty for noncompliance would be, but "civil service rules and other procedures already exist to address situations where conduct may fall short of these expectations," said Whitmer's spokesman Tiffany Brown.

“I am confident that the cabinet I have assembled will put Michiganders first, encourage and empower state employees to speak up if they believe there is a threat to public health and safety, and act promptly on any concerns with my chief compliance officer," Whitmer said in a statement. 

Standing with several Department of Environmental Quality employees, Whitmer said the directive applied to all state departments and was not in response to any particular issue. But Whitmer noted the state’s Flint water crisis and PFAS contamination were examples of the types of crises requiring such a policy.

State regulators failed to ensure the city used proper corrosion control chemicals when it began drawing drinking water from the Flint River in April 2014, resulting in lead-contaminated water.

Standing with Whitmer was DEQ researcher Robert Delaney, who warned the department in 2012 of the dangerous effects of PFAS in a report sent to former Director Dan Wyant. The report went unheeded for five years.  

Wednesday's executive order is designed to give Michiganians "peace of mind that their government is working to protect them,” said Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“I am committed to having an open-door policy, listening actively, empowering employees to speak up, and reassuring them that they have protections under the law if they believe there are threats to public health and safety," Clark said in a statement

The directive is an important reminder to public employees of their responsibility and gives them an excuse to take action in the face of anger or retaliation, said Marc Edwards, the Virgina Tech expert who helped discover Flint’s lead-contaminated water.

“It is common sense, but we live in unusual times,” Edwards said. “One thing we learned in the Flint water crisis, in today’s climate, you sometimes have to be heroic to simply do your job.”

The order is unlikely to elicit a flood of unnecessary reports, said Edwards, noting his experience with the DEQ during the Flint water crisis was that of a pendulum that had swung too far toward under-reporting.

“It comes down to duty versus self-preservation,” he said. “Right now, we have an overemphasis on self-preservation at the expense of duty.”

The order also sends a message about the new governor’s priorities and establishes a clear chain of command within Whitmer's administration, said Gilda Jacobs, CEO for the Michigan League for Public Policy.

“I just think that she’s kind of really setting that tone,” Jacobs said.

An email to employees

Whitmer's directive followed a Tuesday email to all state workers that promised to restore morale among government employees, following a plea for as much during the transition period between the Nov. 6 election and the New Year’s Day inauguration.  

Increasing morale is a top priority, the East Lansing Democrat said in the email, adding that she was "committed to ensuring you feel valued and respected in your work."

Whitmer, who was endorsed by private and public-sector unions during her campaign, recognized that some employees may feel demoralized because of the Flint water crisis and subsequent prosecutions when announcing her picks last week for key department directors.

Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder attempted to diffuse the same demoralization in an email sent in April 2016 after two Department of Environmental Quality employees were charged with misconduct in office and tampering with evidence charges in relation to the Flint water crisis. 

Those employees, Michael Prysby and Stephen Busch, avoided criminal charges by pleading no contest to misdemeanors last week as part of an agreement with a special prosecutor appointed by former Attorney General Bill Schuette.

In his April 2016 email, Snyder said he was proud of the work accomplished by state employees and did not want the charges "to hang like a cloud over the dedicated service I know you provide day in and day out."

In her letter to employees Tuesday, Whitmer thanked workers for their dedication to public service. "Public service is in my DNA," Whitmer said in reference to her own mother’s role as an assistant attorney general to Democratic former Attorney General Frank Kelley and her father’s work for Republican former Gov. William Milliken.

“Public service was respected, appreciated and it was an honor to be among the ranks of our state workforce at that time,” she wrote. “You deserve no less.”


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