By Diane Bukowski
DETROIT – The people of Detroit are beset from all sides in the latest, and most serious, attempts by government at all levels, corporations and banks to seize control of their very lifeblood— their water.
They are openly rallying to maintain ownership and establish people’s control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. At the same time, opposing forces are meeting in secret to seize control.
“We marched, we fought, we just celebrated Dr. King’s dream and next month is Black History month,” Rev. David Bullock, head of the Michigan chapter of Rainbow: PUSH, said during a rally Jan. 27 against what protesters termed an illegal seizure, called by City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson.
“This is nothing new, this is the struggle we’ve been in – we have an African-American president, we can shop, move and live wherever we want—but we still have to fight against the powers and principalities trying to disenfranchise us. This is about control, but don’t be fooled, this is about OWNERSHIP–who gets what, who passes out contracts, where the money goes, who controls who gets paid, who gets hired. . . .
We are coming to Lansing to take our city back.”
Watson wants Detroiters to march on Lansing Feb. 23 to keep control of DWSD. She held a planning meeting Feb. 4 in her office to strategize.
“We must stand up with our churches and block clubs, take over the airwaves, the talk shows: let THIS be the issue,” Watson said. “This is our most precious resource. When we fight and organize we win. We are standing on the shoulders of Erma Henderson, of Mayor Coleman Young–WE WILL WIN.”
But as Watson and other leaders met openly Jan. 27 and Feb. 4, U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox met secretly on Feb. 4 with Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John McCulloch, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, and representatives of the City of Detroit, Wayne County and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to discuss a motion filed by McCulloch Jan. 26.
Cox has taken over retired U.S. District Court Judge John Feikens’ role as federal overseer of the Wastewater Treatment Plant under a 1977 consent decree. On Feb. 3, he discharged Feikens’ key advisers, Special Master Thomas Lewand, and the Business Leadership Group (BLG), which met from 2002-2009 to study alternate governance structures for DWSD. The BLG included Dave Bing (prior to becoming mayor), and executives from DTE, Ford, GM and other major corporations.
The BLG studied various ways to change the governance of DWSD. It eventually negotiated a deal to transfer ownership of the 21-mile Oakland-Macomb Interceptor to a regional body run by those counties, in violation of Detroit’s City Charter which mandates a vote of the people before sale or transfer of any part of Detroit’s public utilities including DWSD and the Public Lighting Department.
Not satisfied with the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor, McCulloch wants Cox to appoint a five-member “Interim Regional Management Commission” (IRMC) comprised of Mayor Dave Bing, McCulloch, Marrocco, the Wayne County Director of the Department of Environment, and a person appointed by Cox. Wayne County currently has only a Deputy Director of Environment, Butler Benton.
The motion says the IRMC “should have full power to control, manage and operate the WWTP and the DWSD, including all functions and power of the Detroit City Council, the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners, DWSD . . . .to manage, control, and deal with all items, contracts and properties . . . . ”
The IRMC would also determine and collect rates, charges and assessments, pay DWSD debts, hire and fire employees, hire consultants, contractors, engineering firms and legal counsel, borrow and loan money, issue bonds, and collect gifts and grants. . . . . (Go to DWSD Oakland County main suit to read entire brief in support of motion.)
McCulloch says recent state citations of DWSD for violating the Clean Water Act, as well as the federal indictments of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, former DWSD Director Victor Mercado and three others on racketeering and corruption charges mandate the establishment of the IRMC.
As he left the meeting at 1 p.m. for an appointment, Marrocco said Cox had ordered the parties not to disclose the content of their discussions.
“He’s a very good judge, and things are going well,” Marrocco said. “I think McCulloch’s motion is the way to go, if that gets things off dead center.”
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano earlier told a Detroit Economic Club meeting that Mayor Dave Bing should be allowed to work out DWSD non-compliance issues, since the parties to the “Kilpatrick Enterprise” are no longer in power.
Marrocco said, however, that he is calling the shots with relation to his department’s issues. Asked about Hackel’s statement, he said, “Well, Bing wasn’t in the meeting, was he?”
He said Cox met individually with the parties involved, as well as in joint session. McCulloch spent at least a half-hour in Cox’s chambers prior to Cox’s meeting with all the other parties.
John Riehl, president of Local 207 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said Cox took a tour earlier in the week of the Wastewater Treatment Plant with its Superintendent Jared Richard, and met with medium-level administrators as well. Local 207 represents DWSD workers.
“Judge Cox is walking into something that is very complex and needs to take plenty of time to examine the issues,” Riehl said. “The question is, will he overreach and try to do something he has no authority to do?”
McCulloch’s motion cited Feikens’ language from the original consent decree regarding federal court jurisdiction in the matter.
“When exercising the federal government’s power under the U.S. Constitution to override a State’s or City’s choice regarding its governance . . . great care must be taken to reach a balance that does not summarily deny to such local government the full exercise of its authority over its affair.”
AFSCME contends that the 1977 consent decree gave Feikens oversight only over the Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) related to pollution control issues, not over the entire department. During his tenure, Feikens authorized the city’s Mayors to function as Special Administrators of the WWTP. But he later authorized Mayors Dennis Archer and Kilpatrick to red-tag huge contracts on both the water and sewer sides, negating the Council’s approval role.
McCulloch’s motion addresses governance of DWSD as a whole, not only the WWTP.
Feikens eventually dismissed Kilpatrick as Special Administrator, saying the city was in compliance with the Clean Water Act and no longer needed the role. He lauded Kilpatrick, Mercado and the Infrastructure Management Group, which privatized large chunks of the department, for their work.
Riehl explained the union’s position on the takeover question.
“We want local control, an end of the federal receivership, and are firmly opposed to Oakland County’s latest maneuver,” Riehl said. “Nothing good can come from this outside agency, a Regional Management Authority. It will mean more harm for the work force, and more cutbacks in service to the community. Every year, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson includes a section in his State of the County address on privatization, detailing new areas of government that he’s privatized.”
Riehl was asked what he thought the administration of Mayor Dave Bing would do in the event that Cox rules in favor of McCullough’s motion.
In 2010, Bing initiated the transfer of the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor and a majority of City Council members approved it, without a vote of the people.
“We are totally mistrustful of the Bing administration,” Riehl said. “His record with DWSD has been absolutely horrible, from sitting on the BLG, to chronic understaffing, to continual rate increases and decreased service, we haven’t seen anything but trouble.”
Exacerbating the situation on all sides of the battle, Detroit’s Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC) on Feb. 1 announced yet more proposed rate increases, averaging 9.3 percent for individual Detroiters, and 8.9 percent for suburban municipalities. Normal practice during previous years has been to later attach further increased sewage rates for Detroiters only, based on their rate of delinquent bills.
The BOWC claimed the increases were due to a decrease in demand for service.
“Well, they’ve cutback services, Detroit’s population is decreasing, people are conserving on their use of water [ed.—as recommended by DWSD and DTE], and thousands of people have had their water service shut-off,” Riehl said. “They are now even shutting people off who don’t comply with the city’s program to install automatic-read meters in their homes.”
Many people have also lost their homes because the city attaches delinquent water bills to their property tax bills.
Customers have reported that the installations force them to spend up to $300 to make plumbing alterations.
Detroit Meter Partners, which includes major city contractors Walbridge Aldinger and Weiss Construction, has a four-year million contract to install the meters.
“We do believe it’s an absolute right for the people to have water,” Riehl said. “Water service must be maintained for everyone, especially children and the elderly. Furthermore, when water is shut off, people’s pipes freeze, they abandon their houses, and the city shrinks again.”
During the Jan. 27 rallies, protesters also cited State House Bill 4112, (go to Heise water bill 2011-HIB-4112 ) , sponsored by State Rep. Kurt Heise, (R-Plymouth). The bill specifies that if DWSD expects a regional authority to assume its debt, it would have to give up actual ownership of DWSD. Heise also wants the authority to re-finance the department’s $5.2 billion debt over a period of 50 years, which would bring a windfall for Wall Street banks. Judge Feikens first proposed the re-financing.
Chanting, “Get your hands off our water,” the protesters said first that Detroit must maintain ownership and control of a system built and paid for by its residents. Secondly, representatives of the city’s poor demanded that the system must be in the hands of the people. Even Detroit’s city government officials have subjected their own residents to hundreds of thousands of water shut-offs since 2002, in addition to unaffordable bills and constantly increasing rates.
Long-time Detroit political activist Arthur Featherstone joined Councilwoman Watson and Rev. Bullock outside the CAYMC Jan. 27.
“Detroit built this system, the suburbs begged us to build it and then we built it and now they don’t want to pay on it,” Featherstone said. “Detroit built it, Detroit owns it—we put in all the investment and technology. Without Detroit’s permission, nothing can happen. They need to go back and read the constitution, read the law. Ownership means control—they’re not taking control of nothing.”
Dave Sole, formerly president of UAW Local 2334, which represents Water Department chemists, said, “The water department is a money-making machine. They say there’s corruption here—if they get their hands on it, wait ‘til you see the corruption, their friends will get the contracts, the billion-dollar contracts.”
Minister Malik Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party and the New Marcus Garvey Movement reminded the crowd, “They took Cobo, they took the school system, they took Recorders Court—and they took and they took and they took. But they can’t have the water. This is an issue of home rule, local control, self-determination, a constitutional issue. We will fight on all fronts to keep our water.”
Shabazz called for 100,000 people to come out, lock arms and say, “You’re going to have to physically come and remove us.”
Later, inside the auditorium, State Reps. Bert Johnson (D-Detroit) and Shanelle Jackson (D-Detroit), took the stage, welcoming other elected officials and representatives of the Council of Baptist Pastors. But their tone was more muted.
Johnson called it “premature” to set a date for a march on Lansing.
“When we leave here today, we will petition the Governor,” Johnson said. “I will talk to other Senators, the Senate majority leader, and the speaker of the House. Don’t believe this will happen just because we [Democrats] are a minority.”
Pastor Michael Andrew Owens, head of Detroit’s Council of Baptist Pastors, said, “I have the utmost confidence that this is a new day under the leadership of Mayor Bing. Mark Hackel and Robert Ficano have said give Mayor Bing time to correct issues of the past.”
Bing was conspicuously absent from the rally. Earlier that day, he called a five-minute press conference to say, “I think it’s ludicrous for Detroit to own the system, to have all the debt, but doesn’t have control of management of the system.”
Given Bing’s administration role in the transfer of the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor, his comments could be taken to mean a willingness to give up ownership of DWSD in return for assumption of its debt by a regional authority.
That was the same paradigm behind the transfer of the Interceptor, as well as the transfer of Cobo Hall to a regional authority, which was championed by former interim Mayor and current City Council member Kenneth Cockrel, Jr.
Other speakers at the auditorium press conference challenged the roles that Kilpatrick, Cockrel, Bing and the City Council have played in dealing with poor Detroiters and city workers on the water question.
“It is infinitely clear that you cannot do this without us,” Maureen Taylor, president of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, told the legislators. Her organization assists poor people every day who have lost their water, heat, lights and homes.
“We have spoken for years about the many thousands of people who are without water in Detroit,” Taylor explained. “You haven’t made space for me and my constituency. The Detroit City Council finally approved a Water Assistance Program that Welfare Rights fought for. But due to the lowdown sneaking connivery of Mayor Kilpatrick, its start-up money was cut from $5 million in half. We want our original Water Assistance Plan (WAP) put in place again. You cannot go ahead to victory unless we go with you.”
The original WAP would have lowered rates for Detroiters below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, to enable them to pay their bills and decrease the department’s rate of delinquencies. Such plans have successfully been established in major cities throughout the country.
Suburban customers used Detroiters’ delinquencies to fuel earlier takeover threats, falsely claiming they were responsible for increasing rates. At the same time, as State Rep. Shanelle Jackson and Johnson pointed out, they 0bscured the fact that most of the 126 municipalities serviced by DWSD tack on substantial water bill surcharges of their own.
Still, Watson said, Detroiters average monthly charges of over $63, while suburbanites’ monthly water bills average slightly over $23.
“I challenge the Mayor to hire a responsible competent director of the Water Department, and I challenge Council to stop rubber-stamping huge private water contracts the Mayor puts on table,” Dempsey Addison, president of the city Association of Professional and Technical Employees (APTE), said. “When the city privatizes, it jeopardizes its tax base. Loss of city jobs also means loss of money going into the retirement system, affecting 11,500 retirees who live in Detroit.’
Neither Cockrel nor Bing has appointed a successor to Mercado, while DWSD’s Deputy Director Darryl Latimer has questionable qualifications, according to insiders in the department.
Both H.B. 4112 and Oakland County’s federal motion speak to having a regional authority appoint the DWSD director, leaving it open to question whether Cockrel and Bing have been waiting in the wings for an authority to do so.