Six years ago, I wrote a column questioning charges in the Flint Michigan lead tainted water case as having more of a political than legal basis. After the initial press coverage dissipated, prosecutors quietly settled for misdemeanor pleas with key defendants. Now, the state of Michigan will have to pay $300,000 to settle wrongful discharge claims by Liane Shekter Smith, the only employee who was fired as a result of the controversy. Those are hundreds of thousands of dollars (plus additional litigation costs) that could have been used for other things like cleaner water. However, politicians demanded firings and criminal charges before the controversy was fully investigated. The arbitrator, Sheldon Stark, found evidence that politics drove the decision to fire Smith. None of those politicians will likely be held responsible for these unavoidable damages.
In 2014-15, a decision was made to draw Flint’s water from the Flint River to save money. However, the water proved highly corrosive due to improper treatment. It eroded the protective coating inside of the old pipes and leached lead into the drinking water. Water officials wanted to wait for the conclusion of testing before adding corrosion control additives, but in the interim residents were left with the tainted water.
Smith was head of the state’s drinking water division. Keith Creagh, director at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, fired her.
Smith was also hit with criminal allegations. She was charged with misconduct in office and neglect of duty and informed that the state would pursue an involuntary manslaughter case. Again, the charges were dropped in 2019 in exchange for a no-contest plea to a misdemeanor. The entire charge was erased after a year.
An arbitrator concluded that she was wrongly fired in 2016 by officials who were likely looking for a “public scapegoat.” Stark found a “plausible conclusion that political considerations were at play” in the firing.
Notably, the damages were 56% more than the award of $191,880 in back pay and other compensation. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration instead paid 56% more to Shekter Smith to close the case. Smith was seeking as much as $900,000 in lost compensation.
She has agreed not to seek reinstatement to her old position.