Monday, June 1, 2015

From DWSD to GLWA: Transition without Reform?

This past February, Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes extended his gag order in Detroit’s bankruptcy to cover ongoing regional water negotiations being mediated by U.S. District Judge Sean Cox.  The order reinforces the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s (DWSD’s) tradition of secrecy.  What kind of example does this set?  When does reform enter the picture?  How can democracy work where one federal judge after another presumes to know for a period of nearly 40 years what the citizenry wants in the way of water services?

DWSD’s history is riddled with secrecy, corruption and incompetence.  Not all of those characteristics ended with the convictions of Kwame Kilpatrick, Bobby Ferguson and Victor Mercado in federal court.

The following will serve as a review of some of the shortcomings that have plagued and, in some instances, continue to plague the department, its intended successor (the Great Lakes Water Authority or GLWA) and water services customers in southeast Michigan.  Also included are reminders of suggestions to correct some of the deficiencies.


No matter how accurate and thorough, traditional annual audits can’t be read and understood by the public.  The means are available today to correct this shortcoming by making the details of public transactions instantly accessible. Of course, any steps taken to reveal mischief, sloth and mistakes as they happen will be resisted by some in the public arena.  Nevertheless, from New York City to South Bend, Indiana and Jackson, Michigan, the change is being made. Detroit and southeast Michigan shouldn’t be the last to adopt the new technology.


If there’s one thing worse than the typical DWSD audit, it’s no audit at all. DWSD didn’t release an annual audit report for 2013.  Ditto 2014.  What about 2015?  Your guess is as good as mine.  In the meantime, it occurs to me that the region’s news media has been conspicuous by its silence on this subject.


Until such time as the newly available technology can be deployed at DWSD and/or GLWA, transparency could be achieved through the routine use of a formidable process known as the forensic audit.

Over the decades, millions of dollars have been spent on audits that failed to alert the public to crimes, waste, inefficiencies and incompetence within DWSD. Who knows why the auditors in Detroit failed?  A few years ago in a town in Massachusetts, however, they figured out why.  Said one of the town’s selectmen, surmising why a derelict auditor had not been forthcoming, “If you open your mouth, you’re going to get fired.”


The wastewater treatment plant in Detroit is too big and unmanageable.  It is too susceptible to corruption.  Too much of its revenue is prone to be siphoned off for less than legitimate purposes. The plant’s technology is out of date. Equipment and facilities are broken down.

Detroit’s sewerage plant should be replaced by a number of smaller, modern plants with the latest technology, scattered throughout the region like the eight in Oakland County (Holly, Commerce, Milford, Walled Lake, Pontiac, South Lyon, Wixom and Lyon Twp.).


DWSD frequently cites fixed costs in water production, coupled with the decline in water customers, as causes for the escalating water rates that burden customers, especially the impoverished.  What DWSD rarely mentions is that fixed costs are high in part because the department operates five water plants, but only needs three or four.  There is no excuse for DWSD to pass on to GLWA all five of those plants or for GLWA to accept all five.


In the opinion of renowned legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, virtually all gag orders are flawed because they depend on untenable assumptions.  Look at his reasoning and consider how well it applies to Judge Rhodes’ order.  Doesn’t the public interest require transparency?  What other interest supersedes the public’s?  Why doesn't someone challenge Rhodes' gag order?

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