Detroit's Swamp: Race, Water & Money

Detroit's Swamp: Race, Water & Money


An emergency session of the Detroit City Council convened earlier this week to protest a federal court order requiring the city to clean up its swamp of a Water Department was telling: 

Almost nobody showed up.

The special session was convened in response to an order by U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox that Mayor Dave Bing, City Council President Charles Pugh, President Pro-Tem Gary Brown and one water board commissioner come up with a plan to straighten up the city’s incompetent Water and Sewerage Department by Nov. 4, or the judge would do it for them.

The judge told them to disregard local law and existing contracts when drawing up their plan.

The ultimatum was an outrage to Councilwoman JoAnn Watson’s sensibilities and she took it there. “Somebody has decided they don’t want black folks in control of the city,” she said earlier this month. “They don’t want us to have local determination.”

Now race baiting is as old a political trick in Detroit as lying about where you live. The “they” of course is the “white” suburbs. Watson is black.

So it was telling that only two council members -- Watson and Brenda Jones -- were there for the official roll call. Two other council members wandered in late. Ken Cockrel Jr. sent an apologetic note saying he had child care issues.

Watson’s fellow council members seem to grasp the new arithmetic that seems outside her grasp -- it is less about black and white anymore as it about the green. With the city withering on the vine, people want solutions not slogans. A quarter-million blacks voted with their feet and left the city for the suburbs over the last decade.

Without a quorum, the council session never officially happened. Still, the 40 citizens in attendance gave spirited oratory about slavery, the suburbs and Adolf Hitler.

You can’t blame the people. Detroit has been steadily losing grip of its crumbling assets and infrastructure. It’s a matter of pride and identity. The Detroit Zoo and Cobo Hall are now shared with the suburbs. But it is worth noting those arrangements are working. Cobo Hall has been refurbished and the zebras are regularly fed.

Water isn’t sexy, but it’s the biggest honey pot around -- an $800 million a year enterprise serving 4.2 million mostly suburban customers. It is wholly owned and operated by the city -- with all contracts flowing across the desks of the mayor and city council members.

And as we’ve all seen by the Synagro sludge bribery scandal and the imprisonment of Monica Conyers and federal trial of Kwame Kilpatrick and the nine percent water rate hike -- the sewer department runs worse than a three-legged mule.

“The judge gets it, the mayor gets it and much of the city council gets it. It’s just that nobody can say it,” said John McCullough, a white man and the Oakland County resources commissioner who is familiar with Cox’s thinking. “There’s a culture Detroit, in that water system, where everybody’s got their hand out. And it’s the rate payers who pay the price.”

Nobody is happy that a federal judge with no experience in water utilities is asking four men with no experience in water utilities to come up with a plan in five weeks. Nobody is happy that he has instructed them to disregard local law and existing contracts.

But to his credit, Cox is giving Detroit a chance to fix its own mess. And to their credit, Detroiters and their leadership seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. In the meantime, Watson is calling for taking-it-to-the-streets.

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