News Human Rights

Detroit Emergency Manager Grants Mayor Control Over Water Department

Teddy Wilson

Although Mayor Mike Duggan promises to have a "new plan shortly" to address the city water department's highly criticized effort to collect delinquent bill payments, activists who have been protesting the shutoffs remain unconvinced that the change in leadership will have any tangible results.

Read more of our coverage on the Detroit water shutoffs here.

Nearly two weeks after a rally attended by at least a thousand people protesting water shutoffs in Detroit, which led to a 15-day suspension of new service cancellations, emergency manager Kevyn Orr issued an order giving Mayor Mike Duggan control over the city’s water department, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Duggan promised to have a “new plan shortly” to address the highly criticized effort to collect delinquent water bill payments. However, activists who have been protesting the shutoffs remain unconvinced that the change in leadership will have any tangible results.

“This order ensures a common focus on customer service and sound management practices that reflects the city’s commitment to refocusing its efforts to help DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewage Department] customers get and remain current on their water bills,” Orr said in a statement, according to the Detroit Free Press.

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In March, the DWSD launched an effort to collect about $119 million in delinquent payments from more than 150,000 customers and reduce the department’s $5.7 billion debt load. Since then, 17,000 residents have had their water shut off, including 7,556 residents in April and May and another 7,210 residents in June alone.

“I’ve heard complaints from many Detroiters who are trying to make payment arrangements, but who have faced long waits on the telephone or long lines at the DWSD offices,” Duggan said during the announcement. “We’ve got to do a much better job of supporting those who are trying to do the right thing in making those payment arrangements.”

Council member Mary Sheffield previously told Rewire that her office has received several calls from people who have been paying their bills but are still getting shutoff notices. “People are also complaining about vacant homes with running water that can help drive up cost, that the department is now seeking residents to pay for,” said Sheffield.

Human rights organizations also have raised concerns that the shutoffs are punishing low-income residents specifically. A report from Demos characterized the program as “mass enforcement to discipline the people” and as a “misuse of the right to deny service.” Moreover, the United Nations released a statement saying that “disconnecting water from people who cannot pay their bills is an affront to their human rights.”

The department’s aggressive collection efforts have led advocates and local organizations to form the People’s Water Board Coalition, which is advocating for access to and the protection and conservation of water for Detroit residents. The coalition comprises a number of community groups, including social justice, environmental, labor, and conservation organizations.

Shea Howell of the Boggs Center and Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (which is a member of the People’s Water Board Coalition), told Rewire in a statement that the shift in leadership of the water department back to an elected official is a welcome change. “It is obvious that the emergency manager is unable to respond in a humane, fair, swift, and effective way in the face of a mounting human crisis and international embarrassment,” said Howell.

During a recent protest, residents called for a moratorium on all water service shutoffs. However, after a moratorium was put in place activists remained skeptical. “As excited as I am about the 15-day moratorium, I am under no illusion that the struggle has been won,” Tawana Petty previously told Rewire.

“The change was probably more abrupt than it needed to be,” Duggan told WXYZ-TV Detroit. “We’re going to do our best to distinguish between those who genuinely are delinquent and can pay and we are going to treat them appropriately.”

Duggan said that his office is building a plan with the DWSD that will assist residents in need of financial help, and will shorten wait times for those seeking to make payment arrangements for delinquent bills. More advanced warning on water shutoffs, more outreach to the community, and a gathering of more resources for low-income residents also will be a part of the plan.

“I’m really focused right now on improving support to those who want to make payment arrangements or those who are in need, and so I expect in the next week we will come out with a plan jointly with the water department and we will address it more effectively than it has been so far,” said Duggan.

Howell says it remains to be seen if the mayor will be able to address the situation any better than the emergency manager. “Thus far his responses have been disappointing and do not show any understanding of the dimensions of the human suffering that is going on nor of the systemic collapse of the efforts to see water as a revenue source, not a human right,” said Howell.

“His most egregious comments continue to make it sound as though this crisis is the result of a few people who are choosing not to pay their bills,” Howell continued. “He is attempting to turn one Detroiter against another at the very moment when public leaders should be encouraging turning to each other for support and sustenance and safety.”

News Human Rights

Criminal Charges in Flint Water Crisis ‘Only the Beginning’

Kanya D’Almeida

"These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” Schuette said Wednesday at a press conference.

A Flint, Michigan, judge has approved criminal charges against three government employees involved in the city’s water crisis, marking the first time officials have been brought to book since Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in January launched an investigation into the public health calamity.

The investigative team is tasked with probing possible criminal liability in the Flint water emergency, which began in April 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River. That was followed by a spike in blood lead levels and other symptoms of lead poisoning in residents.

District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix on Wednesday approved felony and misdemeanor charges against two state regulators and one Flint employee, including charges of manipulating monitoring reports and the results of lead-in-water testing, and failing to require corrosion control treatment of Flint River water—a measure that scientists say would have prevented the water from eating away at lead pipes and fixtures in Flint’s aging plumbing system.

State and federal agencies have for months engaged in a protracted game of political ping-pong over who bears ultimate responsibility for allowing some 100,000 mostly low-income Black residents to consume, cook with, and bathe in lead-contaminated water, which causes, among other things, permanent neurological damage in young children.

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Michael Prysby, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) district engineer, faces six criminal counts, including misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and violation of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Stephen Busch, a supervisor with the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water, faces charges on five criminal counts related to the same violations.

Flint Utilities Administrator Michael Glasgow has been slapped with two counts: willful neglect of office and tampering with evidence.

Busch is on paid leave following suspension, and Prysby has taken another job with the state DEQ, the Associated Press reported.

A felony charge of misconduct in office carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, while conspiracy to tamper with evidence carries a maximum four-year prison term, according to a Detroit Free Press report.

“These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” Schuette said Wednesday at a press conference, the Detroit Free Press reported.

“So many things went so terribly wrong, and tragically wrong, in Flint,” he added, explaining that no one has been ruled out from investigation. “Everything’s on the table,” Schuette said.

News Abortion

Michigan Attorney General Targets Abortion Clinic Over ‘Clerical Errors’

Michelle D. Anderson

Efforts to shut down clinics through legal action also have been seen in Kentucky, where Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has launched a legal attack on a facility that provides abortion care.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed a civil lawsuit in an attempt to shut down a Detroit abortion clinic he said is operating without proper licensing.

Filed April 7 in Wayne County, Michigan, Schuette’s lawsuit alleges that Summit Medical Center, an abortion facility located on Detroit’s west side, is operating illegally because it is not owned by a licensed medical professional.

Michigan law requires medical and other professional services be provided through corporations owned by a licensed professional to ensure “that doctors direct care and supervise medical services,” Schuette said.

The facility in Detroit is associated with the national Summit Medical Centers, which has locations in Georgia and Connecticut, and has branches in Nevada, North Carolina, and Alabama, the Detroit Free Press reported.

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The Detroit facility has provided medical service through Summit of Detroit, P.C., a professional corporation. Schuette, a Republican who was elected in 2010, said he planned to “investigate the possible fraudulent formation” of that corporation.

Schuette’s office said it took action after Summit P.C. submitted an annual report to the state last May.

That report, the attorney general said, revealed that David Lipton was Summit P.C.’s sole officer, director, and owner. Schuette charged that the corporation had changed its corporate purpose to “management company,” which was against the law for a professional corporation.

Michigan’s lawsuit also alleged that Summit P.C. falsely certified that Lipton was licensed to provide professional medical services.

The state said it learned that licensed physician, Dr. Alex Pickens Jr., incorporated Summit P.C. in 2011 after a complaint was filed against the clinic in 2014. Schuette later closed that complaint.

The defendants in Michigan’s lawsuit—including Lipton, Summit Medical Center, and the abortion provider’s administrator, Anise Burrell—will not be held liable for the allegations until the court enters a judgment in the case, the attorney general said.

Victor Norris and Laurie Raab, counsel for Summit of Detroit, P.C., Summit Women’s Center of Detroit, Inc., Lipton, and Burrell, said in a statement that Schuette was wrongly seeking to shut down the abortion care facility. Raab and Norris said the conflict boiled down to “clerical errors.”

“Summit of Detroit, P.C. uses the services of a nationally and internationally recognized business service to act as its resident agent and file annual reports with the State of Michigan. Unfortunately, this company filed a 2015 annual report that incorrectly identified Summit of Detroit, P.C.’s purpose, ownership and organizational structure,” the statement said.

Upon learning of the clerical errors, Summit of Detroit, P.C. said it immediately contacted its service provider to have the error corrected to reflect that Summit is indeed owned and operated by a licensed medical professional.

The statement noted that the parties in the lawsuit were cooperating with Schuette’s office to quickly resolve the conflict with the state.

Efforts to shut down facilities that offer abortion care through legal action have been seen in Kentucky, where attorneys representing Gov. Matt Bevin (R) recently asked the state Court of Appeals to shut down the EMW Women’s Surgical Center abortion clinic in Louisville because it was operating without a license.

The Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky affiliate recently suspended operations in the state while a lawsuit filed against it by Bevin’s general counsel is pending. That dispute included allegations that the clinic did not have proper licensing to perform its services to pregnant people seeking abortion care.

Laura Beth Cohen, co-president of the Law Students for Reproductive Justice at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in an interview with Rewire that attempts to shut down abortion clinics for “non-medical reasons, or reasons that do not concern patient safety or malpractice” are increasingly common nationwide.

Cohen, who said she was inspired to enroll in law school because of the recent spate of targeted regulations of abortion providers, said many providers across the country are forced to shut down or spend copious amounts of money to keep up with regulations that impose requirements beyond what is necessary for patient safety.

The Guttmacher Institute in a state policy briefing published in March noted that 14 states place unnecessary requirements on clinicians who perform abortions and require abortion providers to have some affiliation with a local hospital.