Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week 77 of the Occupation
September 23, 2014
Mayor Mike Duggan has spent much of the occupation of the city overshadowed by the Emergency Manager Orr and Governor Snyder. Occasionally the mayor would pop up at to mention how much he was cooperating with the Emergency Manager. He has taken every opportunity to suggest he is the real expert in restructuring the city. He has assured the governor that he can handle things.
Then along came the crisis in the Water Department. Thousands of shut offs created a storm of public outrage. EM Orr couldn’t get rid of the Water Department fast enough. Duggan stepped forward to provide leadership.
After a series of closed-door meetings, Duggan unveiled his plan to save the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. He claimed the new Great Lakes Water Authority would save the system from privatization, preserve control for the city over its local system, get $50 million a year to fix pipes, and provide $4.5 million in a growing fund to help people who cannot afford their water bills. Duggan said that even if there was no fear of privatization or bankruptcy effort, this new authority “was the right thing for the residents of Detroit.”
The plan was approved last week by the Detroit City Council and will most likely garner suburban support. Council member Saunteel Jenkins hailed it as “solution focused” and showed how the mayor was “thinking out of the box.” Even those voting against the plan took pains to say that their objections were process based, not an indictment of the substance of the new authority.
For his part, Mayor Duggan emphasized that we “can’t keep closing our eyes to the situation” and we needed to “deal with the problem honestly.”
This process has starkly revealed Duggan’s strengths as a technocrat and his weaknesses in looking “honestly” at the real situation we are facing. The primary goals of Duggan’s efforts were to retain local control over contracts, get a way to borrow money for infrastructure, and demonstrate his leadership.
But this emphasis on control and financing misses the deeper reality that Duggan and the city have an opportunity to address. The two main challenges of our time are the growing crisis of or environment and the growing inequality of the conditions of life experienced by people as wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few. Duggan has missed the chance to lead on both. He does not look honestly at what it means to see water as human right nor as a public trust.
During the questioning by city council he demonstrated how little he has really thought about the role of the city in setting a new direction. Council person Castenada Lopez asked him how his plan addressed the “larger issues of access, as a right” and to what extent it is following United Nations recommendations. Further she asked about the concerns of the Sierra Club and others about water as a public trust.
Duggan’s response was \shallow and crude. He said, “We need to deal with reality as it is, not as we wish it to be.” He went on to say, “nobody who has brought me petitions has brought me $5to pay the bills. We have to deal with reality here.”
The reality is that all across the globe people at the local level are doing the real work of creating new, more just and environmentally sustainable cities. As 311,000 people gathered in New York to demand real action in defense of our earth, Daniel Esty wrote in the NY Times: “The real action on climate change around the world is coming from governors, mayors, corporate chief executives and community leaders. They are the ones best positioned to make change happen on the ground. Accordingly, we need to move from a top-down strategy to a bottom-up approach.”
Mayor Duggan is not among these leaders. His limited sense of reality means he is not thinking about a more inclusive, sustainable and just future.