Only Michigan official fired in Flint water scandal was wrongfully terminated: arbitrator

Only Michigan official fired in Flint water scandal was wrongfully terminated: arbitrator
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The only Michigan official who was fired after the 2016 Flint water scandal was wrongfully terminated, an arbitrator has determined.

Liane Shekter Smith was awarded $191,880 from arbitrator Sheldon Stark, who determined that she was an “obvious target” of public pressure when she was fired from her role at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE).

Shekter Smith was “an obvious target for scrutiny at precisely the time the media and public were clamoring for accountability,” Stark wrote in his report, which was first reported by The Associated Press.

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Asked about the ruling, a spokesperson for EGLE said the agency is considering next steps. The agency has until Nov. 4 to appeal.

In 2014, Michigan allowed the city of Flint to get its water from the Flint River, which resulted in tainted water flowing into people’s homes. The decision was linked to lead contamination and an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that killed twelve people. 

Shekter Smith, who was the head of EGLE’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, was terminated from the role on Feb. 5, 2016. 

The state claimed that she was fired for not following the federal lead and copper rule, which minimizes the level of lead and copper in water. She was also fired for not working effectively with the EPA and for failing to “achieve statutory outcomes involving safe drinking water” for Flint, according to the report.

This came after a report commissioned by then- Gov. Rick Snyder (R) found that her division had not adequately protected the citizens of Flint.

Snyder was among 15 officials who faced criminal charges in connection with the crisis. 

But Keith Creagh, who was then the interim director for EGLE, chose to fire Shekter Smith before an investigation was able to determine her role, the report found.

Judge Stark noted that other employees who were directly involved in the decisions that led to the crisis were not terminated.

“Whether or not Shekter Smith was a political scapegoat is not an issue requiring determination,” Stark wrote. “Politics and the need for a public scapegoat helps explain why Shekter Smith might have been terminated when so many others who were directly involved and actually did make the complained of decisions were not.”