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Issues & Ale looks at Flint water crisis charges and other state politics

Jun 15, 2017

Panelists from left to right: Zoe Clark, Rick Pluta, Chris Kolb and Colleen Pero
Credit Lindsey Scullen / Michigan Radio

Michigan Radio’s It’s Just Politics team took over a tent at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival last night for an Issues & Ale event.

Co-hosts Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta joined panelists Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, and Colleen Pero, chief of staff for the Michigan Republican Party, to talk about the latest political news in our state.

In the heat of the afternoon, Pluta began the discussion with a summary of the big news that came out yesterday in relation to the Flint water crisis:

“Today the Attorney General [Bill Schuette] and the legal team that he’s assembled announced that they have charged [Nick Lyon,] the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services and [Eden Wells,] the state’s chief medical executive, who’s also on the U of M faculty, related to the Flint water crisis. And the biggest charge is involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of people who contracted Legionella, Legionnaires’ disease. The allegation is that, on the part of Nick Lyon, that basically he knew about the outbreak and he knew about the threat and stayed quiet on it. And Eden Wells is facing a similar charge, but just that she didn’t tell authorities when asked, when she knew about the threat. But these are the highest level officials who’ve been charged. And certainly involuntary manslaughter is the most serious charge that’s been leveled yet. Also there are five people who’ve already been charged with other crimes in this investigation who also now face involuntary manslaughter charges. So this is a big, serious deal.”

After the water crisis emerged, Gov. Snyder appointed a bi-partisan panel to come up with recommendations for, in Clark’s words, “how not to ever let what happened in Flint happen again.”

Kolb sat on that panel, which Clark said came up with more than 40 recommendations. Clark asked Kolb if he was surprised by the recent charges.

The event took place under the Annex Tent at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.
Credit Lindsey Scullen / Michigan Radio

“We knew this was an issue,” he said. “We had questions as to why it wasn’t declared a public notice. We juxtaposed what happened in New York City when they had an outbreak, and they immediately went public. There were like five hospitals involved, and we said looking at that, and what happened in Michigan was – my word – disturbing.”

Kolb posed the following questions: “When did the director know of the outbreak? And at what point is he obligated to let the public know?”

“And the reason you do is that, then that puts the whole medical community on notice that they should be looking for this,” he said. “And that if someone has pneumonia, you should be checking for Legionella contamination or exposure.”

While the way Legionella found its way into the community was unclear (whether it was confined to the McLaren Hospital, or whether it came through the water system), Kolb said what was clear was the “huge spike in cases.”

“And someone from a public health position – whether the county or the state – should have gone public with it,” he said. “And that’s sort of what we criticized. What we said was there needs to be better coordination and better notification process with that.”

At this point in the conversation, Pluta jumped in to emphasize the fact that a state department director is being charged with a crime for decisions about what to reveal and what not to reveal.

This event was underwritten by ITC.
Credit Steve Chrypinski / Michigan Radio

He asked Pero what this does for the state's capacity to recruit workers for these sorts of government positions.

“Well, I think it dampens anyone’s desire to go into public service,” Pero said. “Why would you want to go to a department and be in charge of something if something happened down the line? And I don’t know all the details… but to see a person who, like Nick, is a fine public servant – he’s served on both Republican and Democratic administrations – to see this happen to him, I just think it’s going to be more and more difficult to pull people into public service.”

For the night's full conversation, including answers to various audience questions, listen above.

For information on upcoming Issues & Ale events, click here.