Detroit and suburban officials last week reached an agreement to change oversight of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), a pact that could lead to termination of a federal judge’s authority over the department after more than 30 years.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John P. McCulloch, along with other suburban leaders, announced on Friday, Feb. 11 that they had come to an agreement on a new oversight model for the department, which provides water and sewer services for Detroit and approximately 130 suburban communities.
Under provisions of the Detroit City Charter, the mayor of Detroit appoints a seven-member Board of Water Commissioners — with at least four members being Detroit residents — to select a DWSD director, oversee department operations and management and procurement of goods and services, and set rates for water and sewer service. The water board must also include a resident of Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties.
McCulloch had recently filed a motion in federal court asking that control of the DWSD be transferred to an interim regional management committee. That motion was filed as part of a 1977 lawsuit initiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over Detroit’s violation of the federal Clean Water Act. A federal judge has held broad authority over the department ever since.
McCulloch’s recent motion requested that the regional management committee have the identical powers previously given to former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick as DWSD’s special administrator. The management committee would have been comprised of the Detroit mayor, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, McCulloch, the director of Wayne County’s Department of Environment, and a representative chosen by the court.
Under the agreement announced last week and as outlined under a stipulated order issued by federal Judge Sean F. Cox, McCulloch withdrew his motion for a regional oversight panel.
Cox’s order states the DWSD will be governed by a seven-member board similar to the one already in place, with four members from Detroit and the remaining three representing Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. The order states the mayor of Detroit will appoint three commissioners, one each nominated by the Wayne County executive, the Oakland County water resources commissioner, and the Macomb County public works commissioner. The parties agree to file briefs on whether members of the Board of Water Commissioners will serve at the pleasure of the mayor or they should only be removed for cause.
The order states all seven members of the Board of Water Commissioners must have at least seven years of experience in a regulated industry, a utility, engineering, finance or law. However, no more than two current water board members may remain on the Board of Water Commissioners and all other members shall be newly appointed. Water board members will be paid $10,000 annually and $250 per meeting, not to exceed $20,000 a year.
Cox’s stipulated order calls for the water board to have a staff of three employees, including an attorney, an expert in finance, and a technical expert versed in engineering, water or wastewater operations.
In addition, the judge’s order states a super-majority vote (five of seven water board members) will be necessary to set service rates and approve a five-year capital improvement plan.
The new water board must be appointed by April 1.
The biggest differences between the old and new oversight models is suburban counties can now select their own representatives, and important decisions will require a super-majority for passage.
The super-majority provision is one of the most critical components of the change, according to McCulloch.
“It means that at least one county must agree with Detroit,” he said. “The reality is that while this certainly restructures the governance, it doesn’t eliminate the challenges. It gives the region a seat at the table to try to help address these issues.”
After six months, Cox, who recently took over the 1977 Clean Water Act case from Judge John Feikens, would consider ending judicial oversight of the DWSD.
John A. Basch, deputy and legal counsel for the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office, said McCulloch’s recent motion for the interim regional management committee was withdrawn without prejudice.
“What that means is it can be filed again in the future, if need be,” he said. “If this doesn’t work out, we can file that motion again.”