Marketta Smith (center) with other students from Catherine Ferguson Academy, and teacher Nicole Conaway at left, compared the takeover of DWSD to attacks on countries in Africa; these students set example for "civil disobedience" called for to keep DWSD.

 By Diane Bukowski

October 1, 2011 

DETROIT – The Detroit City Council voted Sept. 27 to hire its own attorney regarding U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox’s Sept. 9 order essentially taking over the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). On Sept. 28, they heard from workers and residents demanding that Detroiters retain ownership and control of the system they built and paid for. 

Councilmembers JoAnn Watson, Brenda Jones, Kwame Kenyatta

“Under the City Charter, the Water Department cannot be sold or disposed of in any way unless a majority of city voters approve it,” Councilwoman JoAnn Watson said. “At one one point, the federal court estimated that HALF the value of the department would be $10 billion.” 

Councilwoman Brenda Jones said, “I intend to fight this takeover with everything I have.” 

Councilmen Gary Brown, Charles Pugh sit on Cox committee, are gagged from discussing with rest of Council

Cox appointed City Council President Charles Pugh and President Pro-tem Gary Brown to a committee charged with producing a plan to revamp DWSD governance by Nov. 4. He then ordered them not to relay information regarding committee deliberations to the rest of the Council. 

“The Council does need advice and action, particularly because of gag orders on two members by the Judge preventing them from even talking to this body,” Councilman Kwame Kenyatta said Sept. 27. “I presume the Law Department is gagged as well. We need someone to represent this body and the citizens of Detroit.” 

Attorney Robert W. Palmer

Councilwoman Watson moved to hire attorney Robert W. Palmer of Pitt, McGee, Palmer, Rivers & Golden. All members except Brown voted yes.  The council is to hold a closed session to consult with Golden shortly. 

The Council has been urged by many in the community to file for intervenor status in the federal lawsuit involved, United States of America vs. City of Detroit (Case No. 77-71100)

The DWSD committee also includes representatives of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the Board of Water Commissioners. On Sept. 30, Cox appointed his Special Master David Ottenwess, a medical malpractice attorney who represents hospitals and health care institutions, to head the committee and report back on its progress solely to him. 

Rec. Dept. worker speaks against water takeover as Local 207 Pres. John Riehl and Secy-Treasurer Mike Mulholland listen in background.

“None of these people know much about wastewater,” John Riehl, president of the largest water department union local, representing 1,000 workers, said in AFSCME Local 207’s newsletter. 

“This could mean that this panel is intended to provide cover for Cox to impose (in his words) ‘a more intrusive remedy.’  Oakland and Macomb County politicians are asking Cox to take the Department from Detroit. If they do take over, massive privatization and job losses are certain, Detroit will be closer to being dismantled and depopulated, and one of the last vestiges of Black political power in the U.S. will be severely diminished.” 

During a public hearing Sept. 28, held on short notice, many spoke out vehemently against the attack. Only Council members Watson, Jones, Kenyatta, and briefly, Andre Spivey attended. 

Valerie Burris

“Water is a human right,” said Valerie Burris, noting the absence of the other members and any representatives from the executive branch including Bing.  “If nothing else, we should be able to count on the Mayor and City Council to defend us.” 

Neighborhood association leader Carol Conway said, “It’s time to take this to the streets. All my life I’ve lived here and paid my water bill. All of that belongs to us, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let it go.” 

Mary Lacey asked, “What do we need with Cox? We’ve got the people who can handle this system. He has no background in running a water department.”  

Detroiter Gwen Gaines demands water rights in Atlanta protest, 2007; Photo Kenny Snodgrass

Riehl asked, “Did the suburbs object when Kwame Kilpatrick hired Victor Mercado to run the department, when he shut down our heavy repair unit, when he shrunk our workforce, when he shut off the water to 40,000 Detroit families, when the fraudulent Synagro contract was approved?” 

Riehl said Oakland and Macomb Counties have attacked now only because the department has finally started to hire new workers, 103 in the recent period, and is getting ready to remedy problems on its own. He called for legal action as well as mass street protests. 

Local 207 officer Lakita Thomas denounced Fox 2 News’ recent coverage blasting a Black water department contractor, noting that they also caused auto workers to be fired for having a beer at lunch time in their union parking lot.

Rhonda Anderson speaks against take-over

“The Wastewater Treatment Plant is the largest single site plant in the U.S.,” said DWSD worker and Local 207 representative George Rowland. “But we are the lowest paid water workers, even though we provide more than four million people with water. Talk about Clean Water Act violations is nothing but a hoax, this is a plain takeover.” 

Other DWSD workers said that the numerous private contractors who have been hired under the last three city administrations pay their workers up to $10 more an hour than city workers are paid. 

Helen Moore, leader of Keep the Vote No Takeover, called for “civil disobedience,” saying Detroiters are being taken back to slavery days. 

Significantly, students from the Catherine Ferguson Academy, who conducted a sit-in to save their school and were arrested in February, attended the hearing. Although they did not get a chance to speak at the mike, Marketta Smith was interviewed by the Voice of Detroit. 

Libyan boy carries bottled water after U.S./NATO "rebels" bombed Libya's world-class water facilities

“They have gone to Africa, and are doing the same thing to a lot of countries there, and left their people to die,” she said. “Racism is behind this move. As a Black community we have to fight back. President Barack Obama should be doing something to stop this. We need our resources, and the people can fix them themselves.” 

Raphael Robinson is a retired Water Department supervisor and is now a consultant on water systems. He reiterated earlier testimony before the Council that the Water Department is capable not only of producing the region’s water supply, but using equipment it already has, can also generate electricity instead of subjecting residents to DTE’s high rates and shut-offs. 

“They are acting like Hitler, like fascists,” Chris Griffiths said. “They are taking everything we have. We must fight this ‘til we die, not just for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren.” 

Several speakers condemned the majority of the Council for voting last year to give away the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor, in violation of the City Charter’s provisions. Bing initiated that move, which had been recommended by Cox’s predecessor U.S. District Court Judge John Feikens. Bing previously sat on Feikens’ Business Leadership Group, formed to broaden suburban and corporate control of DWSD.

Will Copeland’s poem “Water Warriors” is a powerful call to action for communities to fight back privatization efforts of corporations around the USA over the water supply, which is a basic human need and right. Will is a spoken word artist located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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