Michigan Republicans Block Flint Officials From Suing State Over Water Crisis

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has already given the state’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder and his allies a huge black eye. Now, a report in the Detroit Free Press threatens to blacken the other one.

According to the report, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said last spring that the city may find it necessary to sue the state over the lead crisis in municipal drinking water. On March 24, Flint filed a notice of intent to sue in the state’s Court of Claims. State Republican officials were outraged over the notice, and in response, on March 31 the Receivership Transition Advisory Board that runs the city changed the rules so Flint’s elected leaders would have to get the board’s permission to bring a lawsuit. The job of the board is supposedly to guarantee the city makes a smooth return to self-rule, but it’s hard to see how this change has anything at all to do with that.

Flint officials said there was no plan to sue the state. They were merely preserving the right to do so under the rules of the state courts, which require notice to be filed within 180 days of becoming aware of a potential claim. That didn’t seem to matter to the Republican-controlled board.

Flint is one of the Michigan cities that had been under the rule of Governor Snyder’s emergency managers. In April 2015 the city was released from that restriction. However, the manager was replaced with the advisory board, whose members are appointed by the governor. Which means Michigan state government has set up a “Catch-22” of sorts for Flint. Yes, you can sue the state of Michigan, but only if the state of Michigan says it’s ok for you to do so.

The state created the lead crisis in the city’s drinking water when the source was switched from Lake Huron and the Detroit water treatment plant to the Flint River and Flint’s treatment plant. Officials did not require the addition of chemicals to control corrosion, and the river water ate into piping, causing lead to contaminate the city’s water. Now the state wants to be sure that the city has no recourse to address the mess the governor’s cronies created, all in the name of saving money.

On Sunday, Mayor Weaver said she was “disappointed to learn of the timing” of the rule change. Weaver added that she hopes the new rule is a signal the state intends to make sure Flint is “indemnified for any and all debts and obligations imposed upon the city while under state control.”

Stacy Erwin Oakes, Flint’s chief legal officer, said she finds the timing of the board’s amendment to its operating rules very curious, and hinted that there could be a future legal challenge to it. According to the Free Press, in an email on Friday Oakes said,

“Previously, the city administrator had discretionary authority regarding litigation, now the city, including but not limited to the chief legal officer, can’t  initiate litigation and assert its rights in court without state approval, through the (advisory board).

“Whether the …  resolution stripping the city’s authority would survive a direct legal challenge is a question for another day.”

What has happened in Michigan under the dictatorial rule of Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled legislature is a perfect example of the failure of GOP governance. They identify problems, which in some cases may not actually be problems at all, then they impose “fixes.” And the fixes generally make thing worse than the alleged problems. Then to cap things off, they change the rules so citizens can’t access the court system to address the new problems created by the Republican fixes.

And all these years you thought Catch-22 was a work of fiction.

Featured image via Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

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