City of Flint Threatens State with Lawsuit

Despite filing a notice of intent to sue last month, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said Friday the city has no intention of suing the State of Michigan, but the March 24 filing — which accuses the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) of “grossly negligent oversight” — was necessary for technical reasons to guard the city’s rights in case Flint needs to sue the state in the future.

The action caught Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration off guard. The state, on Friday, urged Flint to withdraw the notice of intent to sue, saying the court filing is “legally unsupported” and creates “an unnecessary conflict between the parties that will damage ongoing efforts to resolve this crisis.”

Weaver’s filing with the state Court of Claims cited negligence by the DEQ, whose decision not to require corrosion control chemicals led to lead leaching into the drinking water and irreversible damage to municipal infrastructure.

The filing was intended to preserve Flint’s ability to sue the state, according to Weaver, who said she does not plan to exercise that right at this time.

“It is my expectation that we can continue working with the state to help Flint recover from this water crisis,” Weaver said in a statement. “I called Governor Snyder [Friday] to re-affirm our commitment to work together for the benefit of the families of Flint.”

Weaver filed the intent with the Court of Claims, which has jurisdiction over claims made against the state and its agencies. The letter names the State of Michigan, the DEQ, and four DEQ employees as defendants. No further action beyond the letter of intent has been filed with the court as of April 1, according to court officials.

The news about a potential lawsuit early Friday riled Republican leaders in Lansing who are considering additional assistance for the beleaguered city. Among others, it prompted criticism from House Speaker Kevin Cotter, who called the notice of intent a reckless move by the mayor.

“I think that the mayor’s actions here could potentially blow up the state’s checkbook, and I think it’s going to have a real chilling effect on the House, as to providing any further resources in the interim,” Cotter told The Detroit News.

The Legislature has approved $67 million in funding for Flint. Cotter said last week he would be open to further supplemental spending proposals once the state budget is completed in June.

Snyder, right, has requested another $165 million for Flint, with $126 million recommended as supplemental funding in this fiscal year, and another $39 million recommended for next fiscal year that begins in October.

“I think that the mayor’s actions here could potentially blow up the state’s checkbook, and I think it’s going to have a real chilling effect on the House, as to providing any further resources in the interim,” Cotter said.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, defended Weaver. While he won’t comment on legal action, spokeswoman Angela Wittrock said he feels “strongly that what we have here is a mayor doing everything in her power to get clean and safe drinking water into her community, and a speaker who wants to make this a political issue, which is incredibly disappointing.”

The notice of intent to sue claims that because of decisions by the state, the city “has suffered or will suffer” damage to its municipal water system, costs related to the emergency, medical claims, reduced property values, reputational damage, permanent loss of water system customers, increased legal liability and more.

Flint City Attorney Stacy Erwin Oakes said the legal notice was filed March 24 on the 180-day deadline to preserve the city’s right to sue the state. She said Flint wants the state to cover all legal bills stemming from dozens of civil lawsuits against the city because Snyder-appointed emergency managers switched the city of Flint River water.

“All people have determined it wasn’t the fault of the residents of the City of Flint, therefore they should not have to pay the bill,” Oakes told The Detroit News. “It is our intent to continue to work with the state, the governor.”

Flint also wants the state to pay for legal representation for city employees being deposed in criminal investigations launched by Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, Attorney General Bill Schuette and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit.

“It would be nice to have some coordinated efforts between these depositions,” said Oakes, a former state representative who became Flint’s top attorney last week.

Flint’s drinking water supply was first contaminated with lead starting in April 2014 when the city, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched the source of supply from Lake Huron water supplied by the City of Detroit to Flint River water treated at Flint’s city treatment plant. The Michigan DEQ officials have acknowledged they made a mistake when they failed to require the needed corrosion control chemicals.

As a result, lead leached from pipes and fixtures into the drinking water and tests showed lead levels spiked in the blood of some Flint children. Although the city switched back to Detroit water in October, officials say the potential for harm continues because of damage done to Flint’s water distribution system.

Some information contained in this news piece was first reported by The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.

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