Thursday, September 11, 2014


Original Story:

It was a remarkable moment Tuesday, after 40 years of fierce fighting among Detroit and its suburbs over water rates and control, to see Mayor Mike Duggan, flanked by the county executives of Oakland, Macomb and Wayne, jointly announcing a deal for regional governance of the water system.

But make no mistake, those guys would still be haggling if not for the hammers wielded by Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes and Gov. Rick Snyder to force a settlement.

FAQ: How Detroit's regional water deal affects you

The fault lines between Detroit and its suburbs, the decades of deep mistrust, could not have been breached unless the local elected leaders were given no other option but having an edict imposed upon them by the court or the state.

L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive, acknowledged as much in the news briefing on the water deal.

"I was a doubting Thomas going in. I didn't think we'd get there," Patterson said about being forced into court-ordered mediation by Rhodes to seek a regional solution.

In the end, Patterson added: "We didn't have any options. If we didn't come up with a deal, Judge Rhodes and the bankruptcy court could have imposed a cram-down ... He could cram down our throats his settlement of the issue ... and this was always looming over our heads like the sword of Damocles."

Gov. Rick Snyder holds another powerful weapon as part of the water deal struck by Duggan and the three county leaders. If the elected commissioners of Oakland, Macomb or Wayne counties vote not to ratify the water deal, Snyder gets to appoint the representative for the reluctant county on the six-member board.

"I don't want the governor appointing my representative for Oakland," Patterson said. "I want to pick a guy or a gal who will be as conscious as we've all been in crafting this."

In other words, Patterson doesn't trust either Snyder or Rhodes to be as protective of Oakland's ratepayers as he would be.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel concurred, saying he found it "troubling" and "upsetting" that Macomb would not get to appoint its own water authority representative if county commissioners vote against the deal.

Patterson told me in late May that he felt like "the last of the Mohicans" for resisting pressure from Snyder and Orr and others to rejoin talks to create a regional water authority. He said then that he'd rather bargain a deal with Duggan on water system governance "than have it crammed down my throat by court edict or the Legislature."

"I have to fight the fight, " Patterson said then, "even though I know the train's coming down the track. I can see it. But I won't sign off. I just cannot in good conscience sign off. I'd rather have the train run me over."

In the end, Patterson got half his wish. The bankruptcy court and Orr still insisted that a regional water deal be part of Detroit's plan to exit bankruptcy, but Duggan worked closely with the suburban executives to frame a deal acceptable to all.

Even lame-duck Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who lost his re-election bid in the August primary, can take a small bit of solace in the outcome, having supported court-ordered mediation on water issues back when Patterson and Hackel were still playing hard to get.

Ultimately, as the old saying goes, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. So even if the parties had to be dragged into the fray, regional governance certainly makes sense for a regional water system.

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