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Whitmer directs state employees to report health threats

January 2, 2019
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On her first working-day as governor, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs her first executive directive, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, at the Romney Building in downtown Lansing, Mich. Whitmer is directing state employees to immediately report all "imminent" threats to public health, safety or welfare higher up the chain. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday directed state employees to immediately report any imminent threat to public health, moving quickly to tackle issues that led the previous administration to be accused of causing Flint’s water crisis and delaying action to clear it up.

The Democrat issued her first executive directive a day after taking office.

It orders employees who become aware of any “imminent” threat to the public’s health, safety or welfare to report it their department director or agency head, who must assess the information and act if there is a risk. The director must tell Whitmer’s chief compliance officer if there is a threat or not and — if it is not being addressed adequately or promptly — should share those concerns directly with her.

“I’m confident that the Cabinet that I have assembled ... will put Michiganders first, have an open-door policy and will actually listen,” Whitmer said during a news conference at her office. She pledged that her administration will empower state employees “on the front lines” to speak up and will act promptly on any concerns.

She was joined by several employees with the Department of Environmental Quality, including newly appointed director Liesl Eichler Clark. The agency came under scrutiny for mistakes that led to lead contamination in state-managed Flint’s drinking water in 2014 and 2015 , during former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.

One of the employees in attendance was DEQ specialist Robert Delaney, whose separate 2012 warning to a former department director about the emergence of pollution from man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, did not prompt a major statewide response for more than five years .

Whitmer said her move is not about any one incident from recent years, but she did not deny that Flint and PFAS were factors in her decision.

“We thought this was an important way to lead on the first day, to tell state employees we listen to them and public health is paramount,” said Whitmer, who told state workers in an email Tuesday that she respects their work and is committed to ensuring that they “feel valued and respected.” She echoed her past concerns about rebuilding morale. The DEQ and Department of Health and Human Services have seen employees charged criminally over Flint .

Asked Wednesday about concerns that the prosecution has left state employees hesitant to make key decisions, Whitmer said the dynamic between the Snyder administration and former Attorney General Bill Schuette — who filed the charges — had a “huge impact I think on what was happening and how state employees felt and how concerned they were about doing their job. We don’t have that dynamic anymore. We’ve got a set of new leaders in my Cabinet.”

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