It’s little surprise that the recent indictment of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and others over the alleged use of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) contracts to line their own pockets has spurred multiple proposals to “regionalize” oversight of Detroit’s water and sewer systems. Various legislative proposals introduced in Lansing would place the state’s Public Services Commission in control of the DWSD or create a large regional water and sewer authority made up of municipal officials from communities served by the department to oversee the systems. Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John P. McCulloch has proposed a more modest, practical approach to regional oversight that would be a good starting point in reforming the system.
McCulloch last week filed a motion in federal court asking that control of the DWSD be transferred to an interim regional management committee. Filed before Judge Sean Cox, the motion requests that the management committee have the same powers previously given to Kilpatrick as DWSD’s special administrator. The committee would be comprised of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, Oakland’s McCulloch, the director of Wayne County’s Department of Environment, and a representative chosen by the court.
In 2005, in addition to seeking a management committee, McCulloch asked Judge Cox’s predecessor, Judge John Feikens, to look into questionable contract procurements. Feikens, presiding over a 1977 case filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over Detroit’s violation of the Clean Water Act, denied the request and instead assigned a “special master,” F. Thomas Lewand, to investigate questionable contracts. Lewand concluded everything was fine, according to McCulloch.
Federal investigators have found otherwise and indicted Kilpatrick, former DWSD Director Victor Mercado, and others.
According to McCulloch, a January 2000 court investigation found that systematic deficiencies within the DWSD contributed to its non-compliance problems. The court concluded that failures in capital improvements, finance, purchasing and human resources, including a chronic inability to adequately staff the skilled trades, engineers and other professional personnel, inadequate training, career development and succession planning were all contributing factors.
McCulloch says his proposed regional management committee can solve those problems because the counties have “decades of experience and expertise” in the areas in which the DWSD is lacking, including engineers with years of experience operating and maintaining water, sewer, and stormwater systems.
He emphasized that the regional management committee would have no greater power than was given to Kilpatrick. The special administrator has broad powers to bypass the Detroit Water and Sewerage Board and the Detroit City Council. The administrator also has the authority to control, manage and operate the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The DWSD provides water and sewer services for Detroit and about 130 suburban communities.
In the wake of Kilpatrick and others being indicted, Michigan lawmakers have introduced different proposals to bring the water and sewer system under regional control. One bill introduced in the state House is largely similar to past legislative pushes to give each municipality served by the DWSD a seat on a regional water and sewer authority, and the appointment of a smaller executive committee dominated by suburban representatives to directly oversee the water and sewer systems.
Bing reportedly stated last week that he should be allowed to study the DWSD’s problems and come up with solutions, rather than let lawsuits and pending legislation shift control of the water and sewer system to suburbanites. Other Detroit elected officials have been critical of attempts to transfer control over the system to suburban representatives.
McCulloch’s motion in federal court is a more reasonable and practical measure than past or current legislative reform pitches. He isn’t asking for anything more than had previously been approved via Feikens’ special administrator order — other than to bestow the special administrator’s authority upon a five-person panel rather than one person.
Given the recent federal indictment of Kilpatrick and company, that’s justified. Feikens placed far too much power in the hands of a single person who apparently couldn’t resist the temptation to manipulate the contract system. Having a literal handful of officials take on the special administrator duties would help prevent a repeat scenario and should be far more palatable to Detroit than an executive committee numbering a couple dozen, mostly suburban members overseeing the department.
Bing’s plea to let him delve into and resolve DWSD issues is understandable. So are arguments that Detroit built and maintained its massive water and sewer system over the course of nearly a century, and usurping city ownership or system control won’t go down without a knock-down, drag-out fight.
It would be far better for one and all if it didn’t come down to that. Given the chance by Judge Cox, McCulloch’s motion is a decent compromise on the oversight issue. If the motion isn’t approved, maybe the best tact to take would be getting serious about finding alternative water and sewer service providers.