Detroit and suburban officials recently announced they have come to an agreement on changes in oversight for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), a pact that’s outlined in a federal judge’s stipulated order in a Clean Water Act lawsuit that has been open for approximately 30 years. Although not largely similar to the “regionalization” approach to water and sewer system oversight that’s been debated repeatedly in Lansing, the recent agreement includes some important improvements over the existing management scenario, and is likely the closest the suburbs will get to getting a fair shake when it comes to input on DWSD decisions.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John P. McCulloch, along with other suburban leaders, announced earlier this month that they had come to an agreement on a new oversight model for the DWSD, which provides water and sewer services for Detroit and approximately 130 suburban communities — including several in the lakes area.
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.
The new agreement outlined under a stipulated order issued by federal Judge Sean F. Cox calls for the DWSD to be governed by a seven-member board similar to the existing one, 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 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 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 of the water board for passage.
These new DWSD management provisions aren’t ideal; but, from the suburban perspective, they represent significant progress.
We credit McCulloch as being a key factor in achieving that progress. McCulloch earlier this year filed a motion in federal court asking that control of the DWSD be transferred to an interim regional management committee. The 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. McCulloch’s motion asked 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.
That motion — and the recent indictment of Kilpatrick and others for their alleged use of the DWSD to fill their own pockets — apparently placed added pressure on the city to make some concessions. Had McCulloch not filed that motion, we suspect the old DWSD management scheme would still be in place.
Allowing the suburban counties to select their own representatives on the water board is something that’s been sought for some time. Yes, Oakland has had a representative on the water board, but it’s always been a person selected by — and, therefore, beholden to — the city’s mayor. Now the county can hand pick a representative to advocate for the county’s interests.
In addition, the new requirement that water board members actually have some relevant experience, and that the board members receive support from an experienced but modest staff is a big gain. These changes should go a long way toward making sure nothing like the shenanigans allegedly perpetrated by Kilpatrick and company ever occurs again.
The super-majority requirement for critical decisions, including service rates, is also a crucial development, as it will mean that at least one suburban water board representative agrees with Detroit’s voting bloc. Again, that’s far more input and influence than the suburbs have ever had.