Civil rights commission rejects finalist with Flint water crisis ties 

Harvey Hollins (left) and Mary Engelman (right)

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday voted to reject Harvey Hollins the sole finalist for its executive director position.

The former aide for Gov. Rick Snyder, who was involved in the Flint Water crisis, failed to receive a majority vote as the body reached a 4-4 deadlock. Members who voted against Hollins said that they were concerned about the “baggage” that he would bring to the position. Hollins is the former director of the Michigan Office of Urban Initiatives. 

The two-hour commission meeting was held via video conference due to the state’s social distancing directives. The director position pays between $160,000 and $170,000.

Hollins would have replaced Agustin Arbulu, whom the commission fired in 2019 following an investigation into sexist comments he made to a staffer. That led to the commission conducting a search that yielded 65 candidates and resulted in two finalists, Hollins and Conrad Mallett Jr., a former Michigan Supreme Court chief justice. 

Civil Rights Commission votes to fire Arbulu

Mallett took a job as Detroit deputy mayor last month, leaving Hollins as the sole finalist. The commission on Monday voted to reopen the selection process. The Search Committee will report on their progress to the full Commission at its next meeting scheduled for July 27. 

In a separate measure, the panel allowed its interim director, Mary Engelman, to apply for the position. She had been prohibited from applying previously.

Commission Chair Stacie Clayton, Vice Chair Laura R. Kopack, Jeffrey Sakwa and Ira Combs voted in favor of hiring Hollins. Regina Gasco-Bentley, Zenna Faraj Elhasan, Denise Grim and Portia Roberson voted no. 

Several members were concerned with Hollins’ role in the Snyder administration and its handling of the Flint water crisis.

“Our 2017 report on the Flint water crisis specifically found that racism was a key factor in the crisis,” said Elhasan, a recent appointee of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “And I think hiring a candidate who was involved in that crisis goes directly against everything that department must prevent and that the commission is meant to protect against.”

The Flint crisis continues to be litigated, but Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office has indicated that Hollins is not a target in the matter. Hollins has testified that he warned Snyder about lead levels in Flint water before Snyder concluded the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had underestimated the danger.

2 join Civil Rights Commission, timeline set to replace Arbulu

Sakwa voted to hire Hollins. The Snyder administration appointee said it “really bothers” him that Hollins is “being penalized for something he’s not responsible for.”

Elhasan said, “While the support may have been there very early on, on paper, after you learn more about someone, you make a decision based upon those facts that have been put before you. … It’s sort of irrelevant that there was support early on.”

Roberson, another Whitmer appointee, said during the meeting that she is a friend of Hollins. However, she added she is concerned about whether he could be effective in the position.

“He’s a good guy,” Roberson said. “But we are in a position right now where we just moved away from a director who was involved in things that were nefarious.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.