The state of Michigan says it will pay $300,000 to the only employee who was fired as a result of lead-contaminated water in Flint
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 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.
“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.
McDiarmid declined further comment. A message seeking comment was left for Shekter Smith’s lawyer.
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.
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.
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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