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Can Emergency Managers be held accountable for their bad decisions?

Oct 26, 2015

Gov. Snyder is taking heat regarding decisions made by his Emergency Managers that lead to the Flint water crisis
Credit Gov. Rick Snyder / screengrab

The fallout from the Flint water crisis is far from over.

Yes, the state’s top water official has been “reassigned.”  

And sure, the Department of Environment Quality director admits they bungled the testing of Flint’s water, and failed at setting up appropriate corrosion control measures. Those measures would have prevented lead from leaching from pipes in the Flint’s water.

But there is a deeper anger in Flint aimed at Governor Snyder, and the string of emergency managers he appointed to run the struggling city when it reached a financial crisis.

The decisions to leave the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department, join a new water authority, and in the meantime, draw water from the Flint Rivers, were all made by EM’s who answer to the Governor.

So do citizens have any recourse when an emergency manager makes a bad call? Can an emergency manager be held accountable? And is the idea of emergency managers actually unconstitutional in the first place?

We ran these questions past Robert A. Sedler, a distinguished professor at Wayne State University Law School. He teaches courses in Constitutional Law and Conflict of Laws.

According to Sedler, the answer to all of the above is a fairly resounding “no.”

Sedler explains that local governments are given power by the state, and that what can be given can also be taken away.

“Local governments, whether it’s counties, cities, school boards, are creatures of the state,” Sedler says. “The state can set them up, the state can abolish them.”

So the constitutionality is clear, according to Sedler. But what about accountability? He says there’s a problem there too.

“I don’t know how many [lawsuits] have been filed, but none have been successful,” Sedler says. “The law is so broad and gives so many powers that it’s very difficult to find a violation.”

“If there’s any way of challenging the actions, it’s not on Constitutional grounds, but that the actions are not authorized by the Emergency Manager Law. That’s a very difficult challenge to make because the law is very broad.”