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Push to hold Flint mayor in contempt cites Scripps News investigation

The Natural Resources Defense Council and ACLU have asked a judge to sanction the City of Flint and its mayor for repeatedly violating court orders.
Push to hold Flint mayor in contempt cites Scripps News investigation
Posted at 9:51 PM, Jun 14, 2023

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have cited a Scripps News investigation from May as evidence in a court motion asking a federal judge to "find the City of Flint Michigan and its Mayor in contempt of court" for failing to comply with deadlines to remove hazards that can leach lead into the city's drinking water.

Last month, Scripps News reported how nearly a decade after the Flint water crisis began, work to remove lead pipes across the city's water system has slowed to a crawl

In an April interview Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley, who took office three and a half years ago, repeatedly declined to share an approximate number of the homes that still need their underground water lines inspected. 

"Well, those numbers are, you know, are elusive to say," Neeley said at the time. "I don't want to be nailed down to actually giving a particular number."  

The mayor instead provided a percentage. 

"We're going to stick with the number of more than 90% has been completed and we're finishing out the rest."  

Scripps News discovered "more than 90% complete" is also the same claim Neeley's administration made in August 2020. 

A Scripps News analysis of court documents and city progress reports, disclosed by the city following a historic court settlement, showed thousands of residents may still need their drinking water pipes inspected for lead.

More missed deadlines 

The court motion, filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleges the city has shown "a pattern of disregard for this Court's orders over the years." Representing Flint residents, NRDC and ACLU say the city failed to determine the full scope of work left on the project of finding and replacing the lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, which became compromised and corrosive after officials switched Flint's water source in 2014. 

The motion asks a federal judge overseeing the city's progress "to find the City of Flint and its mayor, Sheldon Neeley, in contempt of court for the City's violations of the Court's order." It also asks the court to impose a daily fine of $500 until the city finishes identifying how much work remains. 

The court documents filed by plaintiffs as evidence of the need for sanctions include a printout of the text version of the Scripps News investigation from May, as well as emails between plaintiffs' attorneys and the city's attorneys. The emails detail plaintiffs' repeated failed attempts to get timely court-mandated progress reports from the city, and warnings to city lawyers that Flint was in violation of court orders.

"Absent relief to coerce the City to finally finish the job the Court ordered it to do, its delays may go on indefinitely," the motion claims.

The city originally agreed, in the 2017 court settlement, to finish all work to find and remove all lead and galvanized steel service lines at Flint residences by Jan. 2020. After the city missed that deadline, it agreed to and missed two subsequent deadlines.

"Deadlines were set and deadlines were missed. I admit to that," Mayor Neeley told Scripps News in April. "Some could be contributed to me and some could be contributed to other pieces." 

The court filing cites an abbreviated version of the quote: “[D]eadlines were missed. I admit to that. . . . Some could be [attr]ibuted to me,” as part of its evidence that the mayor himself should be sanctioned. 

Plaintiffs claim the city still has not completed basic steps, such as outreach to obtain consent from residents to do the work required by the settlement agreement. Citing "the history of the city's noncompliance and its repeated failures to follow through on its promises" the motion also emphasizes the need for the city to provide documentation when it purports to meet the requirements of the settlement agreement.

On Wednesday, an attorney for the city and the mayor filed a written response in court, saying the plaintiffs’ concerns “are now or will be either moot, are duplicative, or wholly lack merit.” The filing says the “substantial progress made by the City of Flint” has been ignored, and that the city has "nearly completed” its requirements of determining the scope of work that remains.  

The argument also takes issue with naming Mayor Neeley specifically, saying “Naming him, for the first time in this litigation is thus legally dubious at best, does nothing additional to further the effectuation of the Settlement Agreement and its amendments, and any requests for relief sought against him should be denied…” 

The judge has yet to rule on the motion, with a hearing scheduled for June 30.

Phone lines out 

Nearly $100 million in state and federal funds were set aside for the project. One of the city's contractors, Flint-based Rowe Professional Services, has been awarded at least $5.96 million to manage the project, according to a Michigan Office of the Auditor General report from January.

Scripps News found the city's "Get the Lead Out" phone number for residents was in and out of service since late April, with residents reporting issues with the phone line since at least July of 2022. A city spokesperson said Rowe Engineering manages the phone line, which, when working, goes straight to voicemail, and when not, hangs up on the caller. City spokesperson Caitie O'Neill promised a "permanent fix" would be coming after our last report, saying the contractor needed to get a larger mailbox due to high call volume. 

On a recent Wednesday afternoon during normal business hours, more than a month after O'Neill's promise, Scripps News was with Flint City Council member Tonya Burns when she tried calling. 

"The user's mailbox is not available at this time," the recording stated, before hanging up on her.  

"If no other line works at City Hall, that line should be working," Burns said. "There's no excuse for that. There's none," she said. 

Afterwards, Scripps News asked the city why it did not provide a live staffer to answer the phone. The city later sent a statement attributed to Rowe Professional Services: "We ask people be patient if the voicemail is full when you call due to a large increase in the calls received daily. We are discussing a potential fix such as an answering service that operates 24 hours a day but that has not yet been fully researched."

Still waiting 

For our original report, Scripps News told Neeley about seven different Flint residents, who we discovered have repeatedly contacted the city but are still waiting to get contractors out to their homes years later, including Adia McCullough. 

"They came in, spray painted the pipeline, and they put little flags and then they left, and they never did the work," she told us in April. 

McCullough told us her 7-year-old son Robbie has had to drink bottled water his entire life, as they wait for the city to dig underground and inspect their water pipes. 

"It feels like you don't matter," McCullough said at the time. "The world just keeps going on, and you keep going on, but like you don't matter. Everyone here's not important enough," she said. 

After we gave the mayor her address and phone number in late April, he pledged to do something about it. The mayor later called his water department, confirming there was no documentation that work had been completed at her home. 

"Now I know her name." Neeley said. "Now that you're bringing it to me, I will send a team out." 

When Scripps News asked the mayor how long residents like McCullough should have to wait for a team to assess their homes, he responded, "Once that call comes in and we catalog that call, I would assume no more than two weeks before they see some level of action." 

Scripps News returned to Flint more than a month later and met with McCullough outside her home, where her yard was intact — with no signs of digging. 

"No action still," said McCullough. 

She also said she had not heard from the city or any of its contractors. 

After Scripps News asked the city about Adia's status, a spokesperson repeated what she told us last month — that Rowe told them they had a work order in for her home, this time adding "We are awaiting more information about scheduling." 

The same day the city sent that response, Tuesday of this week, McCullough said someone from the city showed up at her house, asking her to sign another consent form to give the city permission to inspect the pipes. McCullough previously said she had signed multiple consent forms over the years. 

McCullough said contractors did arrive at her house the next day, Wednesday (the day of this writing).

"I can't help but wonder, is this happening for everyone else though," McCullough said.

The next deadline  

The current court deadline the city faces to finish all work on the project is Aug. 1. In April, Scripps News asked Mayor Neeley if the city would make that court-ordered deadline. 

"We're going to make all efforts to make all deadlines," he said, but made clear he was "not guaranteeing" they could "based upon what other obstacles could be out there, that are unseen." 

This week, in a statement to Scripps News, City of Flint spokesperson Caitie O'Neill did make that guarantee. 

"The City of Flint's project manager Rowe Professional Services has assured us that lead service line excavation and replacement work will be completed in compliance with the terms of the NRDC/Concerned Pastors settlement agreement by August 1, 2023," she wrote.

The city’s attorney ended up making the same guarantee the next day, but went even further – telling the judge in Wednesday’s court filing that it’s even possible the city could finish its work ahead of schedule.  “Given this progress, the City fully anticipates completing service line excavation and replacement activities by the court-ordered August 1, 2023 deadline (potentially even sooner),” attorney Joseph Kuptz submitted. 

But the city's contractor, via the city spokesperson, did not make the same claim.

The same day of the filing, a company spokesperson told Scripps News “we have a good relationship with the city,” but added that “we have been told by the city attorneys and everybody – don’t comment; make sure everything gets funneled through the city.”  

City spokesperson Caitie O’Neill then sent Scripps News a statement attributed to Rowe Professional Services, with Rowe CEO Leanne Panduren copied, clarifying that the company is “projecting” that work will be completed by August 1 “based on the current pace of construction” and that the “completion of all service lines are subject to several factors such as weather, coordination with property owners and other factors that may affect the overall schedule.”  

We'll be following this story. Email Carrie.Cochran@Scripps.com with questions or tips.   


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