Bankole: Flint’s top lawyer says protecting city is priority
Stacy Erwin Oakes, the newly appointed chief legal counsel for Flint, says protecting the interests of the city and its residents are the top priority for the law department. That includes the city’s right to file a notice of intent to sue the state for the actions of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in the lead-contaminated water crisis.
With just five weeks on the job, Oakes, 42, fired off a letter on April 22 to Richard Kuhl, an assistant attorney general in the Office of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, disputing Kuhl’s earlier letter contending the city’s law department had missed the 180-day filing notice deadline on potential claims regarding the April 2014 decision to switch to the Flint River from the Detroit system for public water.
Oakes — who previously worked as an assistant attorney general under former state Attorneys General Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and Mike Cox, a Republican — is a seasoned lawyer and former two-term legislator who understands the intersection of the law and public policy.
“The city strongly disagrees with the assertions in your letter that it does not have good faith claims against the state. You assert that the decision to switch the water supply from the City of Detroit to the Flint River was made by the city. In fact, it was made by an Emergency Manager appointed by and answerable to Governor Snyder pursuant to the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, in conjunction with the input and approval of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,” Oakes wrote. “We believe that under these facts, the decision was that of the state and not the city.”
In an interview Friday, Oakes said the city’s legal department, which currently has five attorneys and plans to hire two or three more, is up to the challenge of handling the plethora of lawsuits the city is facing. The department’s annual budget is $3 million but this year the city plans to up it to $6 million. The chief counsel’s salary is set at between $90,000 and $108,000.
“The water crisis has resulted in over 50 civil lawsuits that name the City of Flint or its employees and officials as defendants,” Oakes said. “Many cases are not active and two were dismissed this (past) week. Of the active cases, we have seven cases in the Eastern District of Michigan (five class actions), three in Genesee Circuit Court (all class actions), two in the Court of Claims.”
Oakes, who earned her law degree from Michigan State University, after obtaining an undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Ferris State University, was the first woman in 2010 elected from the 95th House District as a state representative serving two terms as a Democrat.
She says playing a crucial role in the Flint saga is important and personal for her because everything else depends on how she and her team approach the legal challenges ahead.
“At this moment, I feel as though every life experience I have had has been in preparation for me to serve the residents of Flint,” Oakes said.
But one of the more pressing challenges ahead, she noted, is upgrading the technology in the law department in an attempt to improve efficiency and productivity and implement tools to eliminate time consuming work.
“The operational systems and processes used to support the law department are currently being reviewed,” Oakes said. “With increasing litigation and discovery request for documents, with the same amount of IT personnel and assistant city attorneys, it is necessary to invest in management software so that all legal matters may be tracked appropriately and so that we can best serve the legal needs of the City of Flint.”
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has expressed confidence in her choice of city attorney.
“Stacy is held in high regard by the legal community. She is a proven consumer protection advocate, and brings with her extensive knowledge of the legislative process and municipal government. She is qualified, capable, and understands the needs of the people,” Weaver said in a statement announcing her appointment.
Oakes said Weaver has asked every department head to put the people of Flint at the forefront of policies and procedures to avoid the mistakes of the past.
She wants to do just that.
“Ultimately, the people have been victimized and one of my main goals is to protect them from having the cost of their victimization passed onto them,” Oakes said. “It is the law department’s intent to use every law, policy and resource to protect the people.”
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on Super Station 910AM at noon Fridays. His column appears Monday and Thursday.
Stacy Erwin Oakes
Appointed: March 24, 2016
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Ferris State University; teaching certificate, Saginaw Valley State University; juris doctor degree, Michigan State University
Experience: Assistant attorney general, Office of Michigan Attorney General; policy analyst, Michigan House of Representatives; state representative, 95th House District (Saginaw); corrections officer, Saginaw Correctional Facility; teacher, Central Middle and Saginaw High schools; president, Erwin Properties LLC.
Affiliations: Member, Michigan State University College of Law Board of Trustees; member, Saginaw County Community Action Committee
Family: Married to attorney Michael Oakes and mother of two children in Saginaw County.