The House and Senate recessed for spring “district work” on March 24 with a flurry of activity. They returned April 12.
Flint Water Crisis
The Flint water crisis continues to produce headlines across the nation and world.
Congressional Oversight — The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held two hearings in March. On March 15 the hearing featured Susan Hedman, who resigned as chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 in January 2016; Darnell Earley, Flint’s emergency manager at the time the city began pulling its drinking water from the Flint River; and Dr. Marc Edwards, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech University. On March 17, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy testified.
At the hearing, the Governor stated for the first time that the state’s emergency manager law failed with regard to Flint’s water. The Governor testified that he did not know for certain there was a problem with lead in the drinking water until September 28, 2015. He was aware of concerns about lead in the water for two months prior to that date, but that every time his staff asked about the drinking water, staff at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told them the water was safe.
Snyder said he did not learn of the Legionnaires outbreak and of concerns it could be linked to the use of the Flint River water until January 2016. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services staff knew of the Legionnaires outbreak in late 2014 and top aides to Mr. Snyder knew of it in 2015 according to now-public emails.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, will hold a hearing on April 13 to learn about the infrastructure issues in Flint and the short and long-term health implications of the city’s lead contaminated water on residents.
State Employees At Fault — At a Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce speech on April 7 reported by MLive, Snyder directly blamed state employees for the crisis. “How did it happen? All it took were several career civil servants that had 20-30 years’ service that technically read rules and didn’t use common sense,” Snyder said. Still, he said, he was taking responsibility. “I take this personally. Those folks worked for me,” Snyder said.
State Legislative Oversight — The Michigan Legislature’s new Joint Select Committee on The Flint Water Public Health Emergency held hearings March 15 and 22 in Lansing, and March 29 in Flint. The Auditor General testified at the first two hearings about its audit of the Department of Environmental Quality. The Flint hearing drew testimony from former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from Flint’s Hurley Hospital, the Genesee County Health Department, community activist LeAnne Walters, the Michigan Flint Water Disaster Task Force, and many others. Flint Water Treatment Plant Supervisor Mike Glasgow told legislators he had assumed Flint would have to use corrosion control chemicals when it began drawing water from the Flint River, but was told by the state DEQ it was not necessary.
Flint Task Force — The Flint Water Advisory Task Force appointed by Governor Snyder last October and Co-chaired by former Republican legislator Ken Sikkema and former Democratic House Member Chris Kolb issued its report on March 23 including 36 findings and 44 recommendations. Tellingly, its cover letter points out “. . . though it may be technically true that all levels of government failed, the state’s responsibilities should not be deflected. The causes of the crisis lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agencies’ failures and its appointed emergency managers’ misjudgments.”
The report criticized the emergency managers, the emergency manager law, the Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Health and Human Services, the governor, the governor’s staff, the Genesee County Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Neither the Governor nor the Governor’s office took steps to reverse poor decisions by MDEQ and state-appointed emergency managers until October 2015, in spite of mounting problems and suggestions to do so by senior staff members in the Governor’s office,” the task force said. “The significant consequences of these failures for Flint will be long-lasting. They have deeply affected Flint’s public health, its economic future, and residents’ trust in government.”
Mitch Bean, retired House Fiscal Agency Director and principal of Great Lakes Economics, recently said that the Task Force should have explained how the cuts to state revenue sharing and other tax law changes contributed to Flint’s financial problems and the effort to seek cheap water. Bean has calculated that the state’s long-term reduction of statutory revenue sharing resources to local communities directly cost Flint $62 million over the last 15 years.
Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee — Test results by state, federal and independent water quality experts show the water quality in Flint is improving, the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee was told on April 1 in Chicago at the EPA’s regional headquarters. The FWICC was formed in January 2016 by Governor Snyder and is made up of city, county, state, and federal officials as well as subject-matter experts such as Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. The 17-member committee is making recommendations regarding the health and welfare of people exposed to lead, studying Flint’s water infrastructure and determining potential upgrades, reviewing Flint Water Task Force recommendations, and establishing ways to improve communication between local and state government.
There are still some locations where high lead levels are a concern, the experts found. Much of that can be attributed to the presence of small pieces of lead that have broken off from pipes and may be caught in a home’s plumbing system. Of eight Sentinel Sites sites, five had especially high lead levels in the DEQ’s first round of testing. That decreased to three sites in the second round and two sites in the third round, though one of the two sites in the final round appeared to have cleared testing in the previous two rounds. The DEQ’s lead data summary as of April 1 showed 92 percent of the 18,281 samples collected were at or below 15 parts per billion, considered the action level under the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Eighty-two percent of the 16,861 samples at or below 15 ppb tested above 5 ppb (15,109 samples specifically), while 0.5 percent were between 101 and 150 ppb and 1.1 percent were above 150 ppb, DEQ data showed. Daily flushing of every faucet is recommended but residents want to be reimbursed for the cost of flushing.
A community forum is on April 16 was announced for the public to speak to the same officials who came to a consensus on the improved water quality.
21st Century Infrastructure Commission — As promised in his State of the State address in January, Governor Snyder issued on March 10 Executive Order 2016-5 to create the Twenty-first Century Infrastructure Commission. According to the press release, it “. . . will identify long-term strategies to help ensure Michigan’s infrastructure remains safe and efficient now and into the future. . . . the Commission’s recommendations will help determine the use of $165 million to be set aside in a newly created Michigan Infrastructure Fund, . . . and will be responsible for identifying strategic best practices to modernize the state’s transportation, water and sewer, energy and communications infrastructure.” The commission will have 15 gubernatorial appointees, four legislative appointees and eight department directors. It has until November 30 to make its recommendations.
Legal Action — On March 24 the city of Flint filed a notice with the Michigan Court of Claims of its intent to sue the State of Michigan for the Flint water damage. That provoked heavy criticism from Republican leaders who had just passed $70 million of Flint aid. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver assured them that the notice was required to preserve time limits rather than any real intent to sue the state.
On April 6 a federal racketeering lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Flint by over 400 Flint residents against Governor Snyder and other state and local officials over lead contamination of the city’s drinking water. The lawsuit accuses Snyder and others of hatching a “wrongful scheme” to reduce Flint’s indebtedness by stopping the impoverished city from buying treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, instead of “invoking time tested, well-honed federal bankruptcy protections for restructuring the debts of municipalities.”
Along with Snyder, the suit names as defendants the state of Michigan; the departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services; and a number of state officials, along with emergency managers whom Snyder appointed to oversee the city. Also named are the city of Flint, two of its utility officials and three consulting companies that advised them. It was filed by law firms in Southfield and New York.
Meanwhile, famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich continues her involvement with the Flint Water Class Action Team and posting about it on her Facebook page. By one count, there are over 30 lawsuits pending against the federal government, state, city of Flint, or contractors associated with the Flint water crisis.
Federal Action — In a letter dated March 29, the EPA says the city of Flint needs to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure optimal corrosion control treatment. “The corrosion control treatment plan must apply to the entire distribution system; it must also address ongoing operation and maintenance to guide any necessary adjustments and set performance goals for determining optimized treatment,” the letter stated. The EPA criticized the city for moving too slowly on filling vacancies for qualified water treatment staff in its public works department.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency on March 25 approved the state’s request to extend the presidential emergency declaration for Flint and Genesee County until August 14. The extension authorizes federal supplies of boiled water, water filters, replacement cartridges and test kits to continue. Flint water crisis activists want Flint to be declared a federal disaster area to free up more aid.
MDHHS Reorganization — A big reorganization at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was announced to employees on April 1. It creates a new Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health comprised of the former bureaus of Disease Control, Prevention and Epidemiology and Family, Maternal and Child Health. It reassigns the current Office of Local Health Services to the Deputy Director of Population Health and Community Services Administration, “while maintaining a dotted line relationship to the Chief Medical Executive,” Dr. Eden Wells, thus bringing that function closer to top executive reporting. The reorganization takes effect April 18 and is presumed to be connected to the ongoing investigation of the MDHHS role in the Flint water crisis.
Snyder’s Future — In a poll begun two days after the Congressional hearing at which Governor Snyder testified and released on March 24, the Detroit Free Press reported that an EPIC-MRA poll found 69 percent of 600 likely Michigan voters disapproved of Governor Snyder’s job performance. Fifty-two percent had an unfavorable opinion about the governor. Specifically regarding Flint, 69 percent said he was doing a poor job dealing with the crisis. Still, 50 percent of those surveyed say Snyder should remain in office, while 41 percent say he should resign. The poll showed Snyder is extremely unpopular among Democrats, union members, and blacks, is more popular among men than among women, and is doing better outstate and in western Michigan than in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
A Fortune magazine on-line poll found Governor Snyder the leading vote-getter on March 30 for “the world’s most disappointing leader.” Others trailing him were New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and several CEOs, including former Turing Pharmaceuticals head Martin Shkreli and former Volkswagen chair Martin Winterkorn.
Rev. David Bullock’s Recall Snyder petition drive began March 27. On March 31, U.S. District Court Judge Judith Levy ruled that a petition to recall Snyder filed with the Board of State Canvassers by Detroit-area activist Robert Davis should not have been rejected. Davis had sued the Board over the decision in February 2016.
Detroit Public Schools
Legislative Action — The Governor has signed a bill to use $48.7 million left over in the state’s tobacco settlement fund to keep Detroit Public Schools (DPS) open for the rest of the school year. A second bill would amend the Michigan Financial Review Commission Act, enacted as part of the Detroit City Bankruptcy legislation in 2014, to expand the act’s scope to cover the school district, unless the district has an emergency manager in place, which it currently does.
In other action, the Senate has passed a series of bills to authorize a new locally-elected Detroit Community School District on July 1, 2016, and a Detroit Education Commission. The latter will have siting authority for all schools — including charters seeking to become a part of the new Detroit Community Schools. One bill includes $300 million to go specifically to the Detroit Public Schools, $200 million of which is expected to be used for “transitional costs.” The bills must next be considered by the Michigan House.
Lawsuit Filed — A new federal class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. Eastern District Court on April5 brought by the Detroit Public School Board of Education along with individual plaintiffs, including “all children of Detroit Public Schools from 2011 to the present” charges Gov. Rick Snyder, former DPS emergency managers Jack Martin, Roy Roberts and Darnell Earley, Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville) and Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair) as well as a number of people listed as DPS officials for their “willful and wanton callous indifference to” the students of Detroit Public Schools under the state’s emergency manager laws.
The suit was brought in part under the equal protection and substantive due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and says DPS students have been “subjected to the unconstitutional effects” of the state’s emergency manager law, Public Act 436 of 2012.
DPS Corruption Alleged — Sadly, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade announced more charges related to school corruption in Detroit. Twelve current and former principals, one administrator and a vendor were charged with running a nearly $1-million bribery and kickback scheme involving school supplies that were rarely ever delivered. Norman Shy, 74, of Franklin, is accused of paying kickbacks and bribes for 13 years, scamming school after school to the tune of $2.7 million with the help of principals who benefited along the way. Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes, installed by the state March 1 to run DPS, placed the accused current staffers on unpaid leave and suspended business with the vendor charged in the case. He also suspended all purchases by individual schools until further notice.
The Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association has announced it is increasing its annual fees by $10 a year, from $150 to $160 starting July 1. This means that your auto insurance bill will be increased to help fund the lifetime medical benefits for auto accident victims in Michigan.
Senator Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) has resigned from his Senate seat as of April 12. Smith began serving a 10-month jail sentence on March 28 for charges stemming from shooting up his ex-wife’s car last May with an assault rifle. The Governor will announce plans for a special election to fill the vacancy.
Former Speaker of the House Curtis Hertel, Sr. died March 27 at his home in Grosse Pointe of natural causes. He was 63. Hertel was first elected to the Michigan House in 1980 and served nine terms in his Detroit district until 1998. He was co-speaker from 1993-94 with Republican Paul Hillegonds in an unusual power-sharing arrangement, and sole speaker from 1997-98. His son Curtis Hertel, Jr. serves in the Michigan Senate representing most of Ingham County.
Rep. Gary Howell (R-North Branch) is introducing legislation that would extend the $20,000 per person exemption ($40,000 for married couples filing jointly) now available for those born from 1946 through 1952, to those born through 1961. Until the current class of term-limited House members is gone, the growing list of bills to modify the pension tax will see no action according to one of the bill sponsors.
Governor Snyder signed a new law that will enable a person to designate a funeral representative who would have the authority to make decisions about funeral arrangements and the handling, disposition, or disinterment of the declarant’s body after death. This would include, but not be limited to, decisions about cremation, and the right to possess cremated remains of the decedent. SB 551 was signed into law on March 29, and will go into effect June 27, 2016 as Public Act 57 of 2016. The bill passed unanimously in both the Michigan House and Senate.
SB 352, the proposed Michigan Designated Caregiver Act, was amended slightly in the House, and concurred in by the Senate on March 24. The bill would require a hospital to give a patient an opportunity to designate an after-discharge caregiver who would have a right to patient information. The bill is headed for the Governor’s desk.
Editor’s note: Mary Pollock is the Lansing SERA Chapter and SERA Council’s Legislative Representative. She may be contacted at 1200 Prescott Drive, East Lansing, MI 48823-2446; Phone 517-351-7292; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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