Thinking for ourselves
Learning from Flint
By Shea Howell
Many people breathed a sigh of relief as Flint residents returned to the Detroit Water System. For decades Detroit has provided nearly 5 million people with fresh, safe water. The injuries suffered by the citizens of Flint did not need to happen. Their return to the Detroit system is an essential first step in restoring basic safety to their water supply.
But the safety of Detroit water is in danger. The Detroit Water System is being refashioned in the wake of bankruptcy. The newly emerging Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water Department are being guided by the same ideas that lead to the debacle in Flint. Saving money is the priority, not public safety.
Clean, safe water from Detroit is no longer guaranteed. Those responsible for ensuring water quality have proven themselves incompetent and uncaring.
Gary Brown is now guiding the restructuring of the water facilities. This should concern all of us. Mr. Brown has absolutely no experience in running a water department. His experience in public safety is limited to his time as a police officer.
Emergency manager Kevyn Orr plucked Mr. Brown from the City Council to oversee the downsizing of city government. Mr. Brown became a reliable corporate champion and took quickly to the role of hatchet man.
Most of his work as chief compliance officer was outside of public view until one hot July day in 2014. As temperatures soared into the 90s downtown Detroit experienced a major power outage. The downtown grid stopped. People were trapped in elevators. Buildings were evacuated. The courthouse, on high alert after the escape of a prisoner earlier in the week, was among the buildings affected. It turned out that the disruption were intentional. Gary Brown wanted to “send a strong message” about conservation. So he turned off the electric grid. When questioned about this by local news, Brown laughed, enjoying the power of what he could do.
Mayor Duggan rewarded this incompetence and callousness by appointing Brown Group Executive of Operations for the city. He has been the Mayor’s representative to the transition team for the new water authority.
Brown is now the new Director of the Water and Sewerage Department. This approval was done on the recommendation of Mayor Duggan. In a letter that doesn’t pretend to talk about Brown’s qualifications, Duggan simply says, “I recommend that you appoint Gary Brown.” He gives no reason for this. The entire letter is less than half a page.
So on the strength of Mayor Duggan’s word we now have a man with no experience or education in water systems heading the city’s entire department. Further we have a man who has proven to have little understanding of public responsibilities.
The one thing Brown has shown a talent for is cutting the work force. Under Emergency Management the water department lost nearly 40% of its employees. Reductions have continued under Mayor Duggan. Last week more than 100 people were in the process of being laid off. Many of these workers are chemists, many with critical experience in water safety.
“We’ve lost chemists, engineers, instrument technicians … a whole range of people,” says Michael Mulholland, President of AFSCME Local 207, which represents some workers at DWSD. “We’re concerned that what they’re doing is running it on a business model that is inappropriate and irresponsible.”
DWSD Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Porternot said we shouldn’t worry because cut backs are all part of a plan. “The optimization design has broader, more flexible jobs, therefore requiring fewer positions.”
This is the kind of empty bureaucratic language that allowed officials in Flint to ignore what everyone could see, smell, and taste. Thanks to Mayor Duggan, we now have such officials running our water Department. It seems the Mayor learned nothing from Flint.