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Flint task force suggests replacing EMs with 3-person panels

October 26, 2016

Courtesy of MIRS News Service

Local emergency managers would be replaced with three-person governing bodies under one of the nearly 40 recommendations made today by a legislative panel charged with investigating the Flint water crisis.

The task force also suggested the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) be run by a gubernatorial-appointed commission, charged with appointing its own director. 

Not all six members signed off on every change proposed by the Joint Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency. And the chair of the panel, Sen. Jim STAMAS (R-Midland), conceded that it’s not realistic to think all of the issues mentioned in the report will be acted upon by year’s end. 

But Stamas and Senate Minority Leader Jim ANANICH (D-Flint) spoke with the media together about their satisfaction with the 34-page report. Stamas also hinted some bills mentioned in the report could move in the Senate as soon as Thursday. 

“It’s a lot of good recommendations that will protect families in my community and across the state,” Ananich said. “Getting it done will be our main focus.” 

The Joint Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency ended in May its testimony on the state’s role in the Flint water crisis. Stamas spent the summer organizing a final report on the committee’s findings and recommendations. 

The final product makes several proposed changes to the state’s Emergency Manager law. Flint residents complained bitterly that they had no input into the former Flint EM’s decision to move Flint’s municipal water source from the Detroit public water system to the Flint River as a new water pipe from Lake Huron was being constructed. 

The task force suggested that in the future, EMs be a three-person management team made up of a financial expert, a local government expert and a community ombudsman. Stamas called it a “better, balanced approach” on how to oversee cash-strapped communities. 

The changes also include removing civil immunity for EMs so they could be held liable for any harmful misconduct. EMs would be required to post a $5 million bond designed to act as an insurance policy when a decision of the manager leads to financial damage or liability for the locality. 

The task force also suggested EMs create a website where members of the public can go to share their comments on decisions the manager intends to make. 

Members of Gov. Rick SNYDER‘s appointed Flint water crisis task force, co-chaired by former lawmakers Ken SIKKEMA and Chris KOLB, has also suggested changes to the state’s emergency manager law.

The task force’s DEQ Commission plan would mirror what has been done in Texas, Oregon and elsewhere in that a seven-member body of gubernatorial appointees would appoint the director and oversee the department as a way to curb the “communication and accountability problems” within the DEQ. 

The Natural Resource Commission (NRC) had, at one time, appointed the DNR director, so this model wouldn’t be necessarily unprecedented. The legislative task force saw that since the Department “dismissed expressed concerns of Flint residents” on the problems with Flint’s water, a commission may present a better arena to air out public concern. 

Outside of the recommended governmental shuffling, the task force also believes the state should require local governments to take the next five years to inventory its water systems, identify its lead pipes and figure out how to replace them. The state should create a low-interest loan option for local governments, the task force reported. 

Stamas highlighted these infrastructure changes as being the most important for him, personally. 

For Flint, the task force suggested more economic development be steered to the city and that an authority be charged with overseeing a water pipe replacement program that’s paid for through bonding. 

The idea of turning Flint into an education promise zone so Flint kids can be promised financial assistance toward their tuition was also put on the table. 

Other recommendations included: 

– Creating a State Employee Ombudsman within the Legislature similar to what is in place in Nebraska that makes it easier for failures of government to be reported to lawmakers so they can look into potential issues without the same concerns of inter-agency retaliatory action 

– Pushing Civil Service system reforms like those proposed by House Speaker Kevin COTTER (R-Mt. Pleasant) that would make it easier to discipline or dismiss state employees whose actions are deemed to interfere with their department’s mission.

– Bolstering the state’s 5-year, $10,000 fine for public officials convicted of misconduct in office or violating the Safe Drinking Water Act to a 10-year, $25,000 fine for those whose conduct injures another person. 

– Recreating a Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Commission to coordinate lead poisoning responses. 

– Creating something like an “Amber Alert” for public health emergencies to let people know of significant public health hazards in their communities. 

– Requiring better sharing of medical information between local and state officials. 

– Moving the Office of Drinking Water & Municipal Assistance from the DEQ to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

– Making sure the DEQ has the money needed to adequately monitor local water supplies. 

– Setting up higher training and experience requirements for those charged with treating municipal water supplies have better training. 

– Creating a statewide Advisory Commission on Drinking Water Quality made up of industry experts, citizens, health professionals and local officials. 

– Helping low-income residents pay their water bills. 

– Having the Health Endowment Fund, created by the restructuring of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan in 2013, put more money into Flint. 

– Drawing up a Flint Toxic Exposure Registry that includes all children and adults so health professionals and others can the impact of Flint on the city’s young people.

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