The City of Flint filed a letter of intent to sue the State of Michigan, with the city’s top lawyer saying the already cash-strapped municipality lacks funds to defend itself against lawsuits filed amid the water crisis.
The city’s newly appointed chief legal officer, Stacy Erwin Oakes, said Friday the city filed a notice of intention to file suit for damage to the municipal water system and for associated costs, which are mainly legal.
The move was immediately criticized by some state lawmakers and the governor’s office, who said it would hinder collaboration with the city to fix Flint’s problems.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said in a statement the notice to sue was more of a legal maneuver than an actual threat, because the city “would have forfeited its right to file a lawsuit in the future if I had not filed an official ‘Notice of Intention to File a Claim’ by the March 25 deadline.”
She said, “I have no intention at this point of having the City of Flint sue the state.”
Weaver went on to say, “I need to preserve the city’s right to pursue legal remedy if its determined a lawsuit is necessary in the future.”
More than 50 lawsuits against city
More than 50 lawsuits have been filed since January, accusing the city of being complicit in the water crisis for not doing enough during the 18 months in which Flint was getting its drinking water from the polluted Flint River.
That move was a decision made by the state, and it turned out to be a terrible one. The river’s highly corrosive water wasn’t treated properly by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the water corroded lead service lines, which then caused lead to seep into the drinking water and poison families.
The poor water quality also caused brown water and high levels of E. coli, carcinogens and other toxins to thrive in the water. Residents reported painful rashes after showering. Several ongoing investigations are looking into whether the bad water also led to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 10 people.
Although the city had no control over decision-making at the time the switch was made, its employees were involved in treating the water at the plant, and involved in testing residents’ water for the state.
Weaver, who was elected after running a campaign to address the water crisis, has criticized the former administration for not asking enough questions.
Several current and former city employees are named in the various lawsuits.
City facing lawsuits
In the letter of intention, the city says that as a result of the switch “the city has suffered or will suffer damage to its municipal water distribution system, emergency response costs arising out of the declaration of a state of emergency” and “attendant ongoing medical claims.”
The switch in drinking water, the letter says, also caused the city to suffer lower property values, damage to its reputation, loss of business and “significantly increased civil liability” for the city and city employees.
Oakes said the city is under pressure to answer to lawsuits.
“I have 50-something cases that have been filed civilly against the city and city employees,” Oakes said. “That is a cost.”
The office also needs to provide an attorney for anyone being deposed in a criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis, Oakes said. She says the city is facing mounting legal woes “that it did not bring upon itself.”
“That’s the injustice,” Oakes said. “Let’s stop the politics and think about the people.”
Oakes said she hopes to strike an agreement with Gov. Rick Snyder, and “it is our goal to work with the governor in every way possible.”
Governor critical of a lawsuit
The state sent the city a letter requesting it withdraw the suit.
So far, much of the public outrage has been lobbed at the governor, because it was the branches of his administration that caused the problems, and it was members of his staff who raised some of the earliest concerns — without action being taken.
But Snyder’s office criticized the city Friday, with spokesman Ari Adler telling CNN, “Once the city sues the state, communicating officially will be much more difficult as every conversation will need to involve questions about whether or not lawyers need to be present. And, of course, an open dialogue is more difficult with anyone who has decided to take you to court rather than work together as partners to solve a problem.”
Adler said Michigan’s speaker of the house has already criticized the city’s decision to sue, calling it “unfortunate” and “reckless,” which will make it even harder for the governor to convince the state that more money is needed for Flint.
While the mayor and governor often stand together at news conferences, the city and state have been at odds since the start of the crisis, bickering both in public and behind closed doors about how to fix the problems.
Most recently, Weaver criticized the governor’s long-term plan to replace the lead services lines in the city, while the state said her rush to dig up lines without first studying the issue was not financially responsible.
Snyder has proposed $195 million dollars for Flint in next year’s budget. Weaver has said she believes it will cost $1 billion to fix the infrastructure alone.