DETROIT (AP) — The only Michigan official fired in the Flint water disaster likely was a “public scapegoat” who lost her job because of politics, an arbitrator said in ordering $191,880 in back pay and other compensation.
It's a victory for Liane Shekter Smith, who served as head of the state's drinking water office when Flint's water system was contaminated with lead. She was demoted and then fired in 2016.
Shekter Smith was dismissed while engineers in her department — the “boots on the ground” in Flint — were suspended with pay before ultimately returning to work, the arbitrator said in a 22-page report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.
Sheldon Stark said the state had failed to show by a preponderance of evidence that there was just cause to fire Shekter Smith, who had an unblemished record in government.
The arbitrator noted that Keith Creagh, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, fired Shekter Smith without even speaking to her or waiting for a state police investigation that exonerated her.
“No one ever asked (Shekter Smith) for her story,” Stark said.
“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” decisions in Flint were not, Stark said.
He ordered $166,053 in back pay and $25,827 in retirement compensation. The state agency, which now is known as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, declined to comment but said an appeal was being considered.
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 poor city. The highly corrosive water wasn’t properly treated before it flowed through aging pipes to roughly 100,000 residents, causing lead to leach from old pipes. The catastrophe in the majority-Black city has been described as environmental racism.
In 2016, a task force appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, said the environmental agency misapplied lead-and-copper rules in Flint and “caused this crisis to happen.”
After her dismissal, Shekter Smith was charged with misconduct in office and neglect of duty, and put on notice that an involuntary manslaughter charge 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 that didn’t result in any jail time. The case was erased after a year, under a deal with special prosecutor Todd Flood.
Ed White, The Associated Press