DETROIT – The state of Michigan said Friday it agreed pay $300,000 to settle wrongful discharge claims by the only employee who was fired as a result of lead-contaminated water in Flint.
The deal with Liane Shekter Smith, who was head of the state’s drinking water division, came weeks after an arbitrator said she was wrongly fired in 2016 by officials who were likely looking for a “public scapegoat” in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
The state this week faced a deadline to appeal the order through the civil service system as well as an 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.
"The department has decided to agree to the settlement amount of $300,000, which resolves the dispute and allows both the agency and Ms. Shekter Smith to move forward,” said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., spokesman for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Asked why the state is paying more, McDiarmid said there was no guarantee that the arbitrator's figure would hold during an appeal. Shekter Smith had been seeking more than $900,000 in lost compensation.
“A condition of the settlement is that she will not seek her job back. And her involuntary resignation will be changed to a voluntary one,” he told The Associated Press, declining further comment.
In 2014-15, Flint’s water was drawn from the Flint River, a money-saving decision that was made by state-appointed managers who were running the ailing city. The highly corrosive water wasn’t properly treated before it flowed to roughly 100,000 residents, eroding protective coatings inside the aging pipes. As a result, lead was released from those pipes.
By fall 2015, a local doctor and other experts rang the alarm about rising lead levels, especially in children, and then-Gov. Rick Snyder's administration finally acknowledged a crisis in Flint.
The Department of Environmental Quality was sharply criticized for not requiring corrosion control additives when Flint switched water sources. Specialists inside the agency insisted that results from 12 months of water sampling were necessary first, despite early troublesome lead readings and protests from angry residents who held up containers of foul water.
Some critics said the disaster in majority-Black Flint was an example of environmental racism.
There was a “failure of leadership,” Keith Creagh, who fired Shekter Smith, testified during the arbitration hearing last spring.
He dismissed her in 2016 shortly after taking control of the department at Snyder's request.
“I found no record of Ms. Shekter-Smith, as they would say, throwing the flag. Saying that this is significant. The people of Flint have lead in their water. We need additional help,” Creagh said, according to a transcript.
But the arbitrator, Sheldon Stark, found a “plausible conclusion that political considerations were at play” in the firing, especially when others with a direct role in Flint were not terminated.
Shekter Smith's attorney, Brian Morley, said she was grateful for the arbitrator's report.
“Somebody said she was doing her job,” Morley told the AP. “There was no smoking gun. ... Liane has always said, ‘I wish this wouldn’t have happened in Flint.’ She’s a compassionate lady.”
Shekter Smith told the arbitrator that she relied on her field staff to make critical decisions about Flint's water system.
“It’s a community water system that was obviously having some issues,” she said, referring to 2014, the first year of using the Flint River. “I’m keeping an eye on being kept informed, keeping my management informed, but there were a lot of other things going on in the office at the time.”
After her firing, Shekter Smith was charged with misconduct in office and neglect of duty. She was also put on notice that an involuntary manslaughter case would be pursued because bacteria in the water were linked to a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
But charges were dropped in 2019 in exchange for a no-contest plea to an obscure misdemeanor. The case was erased after a year, under a deal with special prosecutor Todd Flood.
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