Let Them Drink Pop: Detroit’s Water Crisis & A Lesson for Cincinnati in Local Governing

Let Them Drink Pop: Detroit’s Water Crisis & A Lesson for Cincinnati in Local Governing

This post originally appeared on virallysuppressed.com as, “Let Them Drink Pop: Detroit’s Water Crisis & The Fight for Basic Human Rights in the Motor City,” and is republished here with permission from author, Drew Gibson, for Speak Up Cincinnati.

Cincinnati, thankfully and warily, is in no financial crisis of Its own. Nor do we have a water crisis. Nor do we have an “Emergency Manager” (Detroit’s Kevyn Orr). So how does this story relate to us here? Aside from the fact that they are our brothers and sisters, the appointment of an Emergency Manager in Detroit’s financial crisis is a lesson for all local governments to study. With the citizens and City Council of Cincinnati, this very moment, reviewing the local City Charter (our local constitution), also considering what powers our Mayor has during emergencies HERE, this article from Drew Gibson is more apropos for us than appears at first glance.

Speak Up Cincinnati is honored to reproduce the article here with our note. Please read it. Take it in. What can a manager of this type, without a vote, do in a city like Cincinnati. It behooves us to take heed. It behooves us to participate in the public meetings concerning the review of the Cincinnati Charter! Let’s hope we take a lesson from our friends in Michigan.

During the Super Bowl earlier this year, Chrysler unveiled the latest iteration of the “Imported From Detroit” advertising campaign that has been such a key part of their rebranding efforts in the wake of their filing for bankruptcy in 2009. The commercial starts off with a montage of your usual idealized American imagery—cowboys riding horses, cheerleaders leading cheers, sweet middle-aged waitresses bringing bacon and eggs to grizzled farmers at a Route 66 diner—accompanied by the sound of Bob Dylan’s raspy Minnesotan drawl asking us rhetorically if, “there’s anything more American than America?” a question which pretty well sets the tone for the rest of the ad considering the implied answer is a 283 horsepower “hell no!” From there the ad touches on the Motor City’s automotive pedigree and its role in making America the country it is today, with Bob telling us that,“making the best…making the finest, takes conviction.” and letting us know that, “you can’t import the heart and soul of every man and woman working on the line.” All of these laudable, yet trite, sentiments are designed to stir up our pride in our country and in the city of Detroit—to make us associate the glory of our collective past and the hard-scrabble can do aspects of our national character with the Chrysler brand—and in this respect the ads are pretty effective. The only problem is that these passionate evocations of Chrysler’s commitment to the working men and women of America and Motown bears little resemblance to reality.

You see, when Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy 5 years ago, the laborers that are lionized in their “Imported From Detroit” ads took the overwhelming brunt of the punitive measures that were handed out. In the wake of Chrysler’s restructuring and ultimate sale to Italian automaker Fiat, 4 factories were shut down789 dealerships—and an estimated 37,000 jobs—were lost, cost-of-living wage adjustments were eliminated and a two-tier wage scale was created that allows Chrysler to pay new hires half of what they pay their more experienced workers. Meanwhile, on the backs of these massive cuts and with the aid of $12.5 billion dollars in taxpayer aide—$1.3 billion of which will never be recovered—the now 100% Italian owned Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is making out like a bandit, posting a net profit of $1.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013 alone. As was the case with the $700 billion bank bailout in 2008 and the recent corporate thievery involved in the Patriot Coal bankruptcy case which I have covered before in great detail, the auto industry and government officials have used our nation’s legal system to burden ordinary citizens with the collateral damage from financial crises that they had nothing to do with.

One of the most instrumental players in the Chrysler bankruptcy case was Kevyn Orr, a partner at the massive law firm Jones Day who was charged with the task of bringing Chrysler back to life as expeditiously and ruthlessly as possible. Orr carved up Chrysler with surgical precision, completing the reorganization of the company within 42 days and raking in more than $1 million in legal fees during the process. As a reward for his work in the bankruptcy case, Orr was named by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder as the “Emergency Manager” of the City of Detroit in 2013, a title that is about as ominous and Orwellian as anything this side of the Department of Homeland Security. As Emergency Manager, Orr has essentially been given free reign to do with the City of Detroit as he sees fit, without any interference from pesky, democratically elected city council members and officials, who are essentially impotent during the time the city is judged to be in a Financial Emergency.

Detroit Water Rally

Didn’t vote for him? Doesn’t matter. Governor Snyder’s vote is the only one that counts.

According to the Michigan legislature’s ironically titled Local Financial Stability and Choice Act—an act that was passed during a lame duck session of Michigan’s legislature and is little more than a repackaged version of another act that was repealed by Michigan voters in the 2012 elections—an Emergency Manager is essentially a de jure dictator of a local government and/or school district during a fiscal crisis. The Emergency Manager can usurp the power of all government officials, modify union contracts, alter pensions for city workers, sell off public assets and exercise complete authority over local school districts. Oh yeah, and he can also work with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department Board of Water Commissioners to shut off the water supply for residents who are behind on their payments by as little as 60 days or $150, because—according to the Emergency Manager’s stated logic—the best way to stimulate a struggling local economy is by shutting off the water supply to more 17,000 of said economy’s poorest and most vulnerable members.

The City of Detroit’s water policy, which the United Nations has termed, “a violation of the human right to water.”, is just the most recent instance of a disturbing trend in American politics to reframe problems related to globalization, corporate greed and rising income inequality on a growing class of unemployed, underpaid and overworked citizens. Emergency Manager Orr and his stable of bankruptcy lawyers have tried mightily to cast these water shutoffs as a matter of economic necessity and personal responsibility, painting themselves as honest businessmen and the citizens who can’t pay their water bills as “scofflaws” and “people gaming the system.” The only problem is that this neither of these assertions are based in truth.

As a cost saving measure, shutting off the water supply for the city’s poorest residents makes no sense. Due to recent sweeping layoffs within the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, the city was forced to mete out a $5 million contract to a private demolition company to shut off the water to about 17,000 homes which have an average outstanding water bill of only $540. If the city truly wanted to get their money back, they would’ve started hounding Joe Louis Arena, Ford Field, Palmer Park Golf Club and half of the commercial and industrial buildings in the city who owe roughly $30 million in overdue water fees. Likewise, the idea that the failure of Detroit residents to pay their water bills is simply a “choice” that they are making in an effort to avoid payment for basic services collapses under the weight of inquiry. When your city has lost 63% of its population since 1950, sports a poverty rate of 42%, has a per capita income that is less than half the national average, and has had its water rates increased by nearly 120% over the past decade with no accompanying rise in wages, any choice that is left to you is between the Scylla of unpaid utilities and the Charybdis of overdue rent and empty cupboards.

Detroit Water Rally

Water is a human right. Greed is not.

No, as is so often the case in this age of corporate hegemony, the Detroit water shutoffs are principally about privatization and the potential to turn a profit on a publicly held utility. For the past few weeks, Emergency Manager Orr and his staff have been considering at least 13 separate bids from private parties who are interested in bidding for the rights to city’s water department and the recent spate of cutoffs is seen by many as an attempt from the Emergency Manager to paint the department as a profitable enterprise, which it may very well be for whatever company it is that ends up controlling it. However, case studies from all across the country and the globe have shown that the benefits of water privatization begin and end with companies doing the privatizing, with private operators proving to be no more efficient or technically sound than their public counterparts while contributing to massive rate hikes for citizens, as is the case in the UK where the price of privately controlled water has increased by 50 percent over the past two decades despite a lack of change in operating costs. Despite what Governor Snyder and Emergency Manager Orr might tell you, privatizing Detroit’s water system is not a magic bullet that will fix the city’s financial woes. In reality, it’s just your average lead and copper bullet being fired at the working class residents of Detroit so they’ll scatter and make way for the city’s gentrification.

As you may have heard, more than 1,000 protestors converged on Detroit’s Cobo Hall this past Friday to let Emergency Manager Orr and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department know what they thought of a policy that denied tens of thousands of Detroiters of their access to clean water. The rally, which was put on by National Nurses United, Robin Hood Tax USA, Moratorium-MI.Org and a host of other great progressive organizations, was a true testament to the resolve of the citizens of Detroit and their allies across the country, and presented the world with a unified face that made it clear that it would not accept a world in which water is a luxury and not a natural human right. Through the actions of these passionate activists, community leaders and citizens, along with brief remarks from actor Mark Ruffalo and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), the rally gained international media attention and shined a none-too-flattering light on the inhumane behavior of Emergency Manager Orr and his staff. In fact, the portrayal of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s behavior was so damaging that, just today, the department has come out to say that they are suspending all water shut offs for the next 15 days. It is a minor victory for water rights advocates and the people of Detroit, but it is a victory nonetheless, and one which they have desperately needed after months and years of having their voices roundly ignored by the city’s corporate and political elite.

However, to appropriate an expression from the realm of drug and alcohol treatment, striving for social justice is like trying to walk up a down escalator. It’s possible to climb your way to the top, but the process is long, it is exhausting and if you stop moving for too long you end up right back at the bottom where you started. This moratorium on shut offs will mean nothing if things go back to business as usual when the 15 days are up. The enthusiasm and awareness that has been drummed up by the rally on Friday will not help the people of Detroit preserve their rights to clean water if in a month all of the major media outlets are ignoring them once again and many of the people who attended the rally—out-of-staters like myself in particular—are putting the struggle on the back burner and focusing their energies solely on other issues. This is a long an arduous process, something that many of world-weary veterans who cut their teeth during the civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights movements of the 60s and 70s are well aware of and that young twenty-somethings are just beginning to understand. In order to protect the water rights of Detroiters, as well as their rural brethren in the hills of Appalachia and people struggling all across this nation of ours, we have to care more about each other than the Kevyn Orr’s of the world care about money. It’s a tall order, but given the fire and willpower I saw assembled in Hart Plaza on Friday, I have no doubt that it can—and will—be done, because while Governor Snyder can import as many green-eyed lawyers as he wants to run Detroit, he can’t import the heart and soul of every man and woman marching in the picket line.

Drew Gibson

Drew Gibson is the writer and social media director for “Virally Suppressed”, a blog that covers a multitude of issues related to social justice and inequities in American life, with a particular focus on Appalachia, the Midwest and the Deep South. Drew returned to his hometown of Cincinnati last year after getting his Masters in Social Work from The University of Maryland-Baltimore and working for the Office of Nation Drug Control Policy, where the federal government paid him with 2 M&M’s boxes from the White House Easter Egg Roll. Drew is not at all bitter about this.


Cincinnati Charter Review Committee Meeting

Jason Lee Overbey – Cincinnati, Ohio – Tuesday, July 14, 3-5pm – City Hall

A Charter Review Task Force has been established to review the Cincinnati City Charter and to assess what changes ought to be made.

First, here is the: CINCINNATI CITY CHARTER as of today. Cool!

Next, the Cincinnati Research Institute has loaned their website out to the Task Force for information, polls and a calendar. From the Task Force we have this:

The Charter Review Task Force receives no public funding. The Cincinnati Research Institute has donated the use of its website to enable the task force to engage the public on the web; to advise citizens of public forum dates, topics and locations; to post studies and data received by task force committees; and to enable the task force to conduct public opinion polls.

The Charter Review Task Force has been created by a unanimous vote of Cincinnati City Council to oversee a complete and holistic review of Cincinnati’s Charter. The charter is the city’s constitution.  It defines the roles of the mayor and city council, sets the number of council members, determines who they represent, and how council and the mayor are elected.  The charter establishes different types of taxation and maximum tax rates.  It determines how our park system is governed, how zoning changes can and cannot be made, and establishes the chain of command in times of emergency.  It impacts essentially every aspect of city government.



I attended the first public meeting at City Hall on the 14th. Here are the notes:

  • Of the names I could see, here are a few on the committee who attended:
  11. (And others who I could not readily identify)

I did my best to get links for all the names above. Click their name for info. Again, I couldn’t see all the name plates of those in attendance. There was also a law student from Northern Ohio (I want to say Toledo) helping the Task Force.

  • The committee is subdivided into 1) Obsolete & Ambiguous Provisions; 2) Elections; 3) Balance of Power; 4) Labor and Administration; 5) Fiscal Reform; 6) Direct Accountability to Citizens; and 7) Charter History and Structure.
  • Meeting opened with information about 1) Obsolete & Ambiguous Provisions of the charter.
  • The Obsolete Committee had just adjourned from meeting and had no printed recommendations to submit to the group.
  • Chair reviewed that the Committee will gather information from all the sub-committees and present recommendations to the Task Force. They will then make recommendations to the Council Rules committee.
  • The Rules committee will ask the Solicitor’s Office to draft language for the ballot.
  • The Task Force will not submit language – only recommendations and requests.
  • The Solicitor’s Office will also look into unintended consequences (legal, et al) of making those changes.
  • Although no written documentation was available, the Obsolete Committee had some examples of Articles to correct.
  • ARTICLE 6, for example, they recommend can be entirely repealed due to antiquated and unnecessary language.
  • They recommended changing the word, “legislation” to, “resolution”. The Council only votes on resolutions.
  • Motions are really policy statements and cannot be vetoed. Only ordinances or resolutions can be vetoed.
  • There was much debate about the THREE READINGS rule in our charter.
  1. The Three Readings rule is in place to give the minority opposition to ordinances the opportunity to prepare a defense on a proposal of an ordinance. The readings have been required for them to have time for due diligence and preparation.
  2. The recommendation of the Obsolete sub-committee was, very clearly, to leave the rule in place. However, they wanted to ADD that there be publication of all proposed ordinances on the City Website.
  3. Interestingly, the Committee broke off into arguments about NOT removing the Three Readings rule.
  4. I felt, all over again, my visceral frustrations with government and think tanks – although this committee is a non-governmental task force. Why, I almost wondered out loud, is so difficult to receive and interpret what the Chair was saying. I got it right first time.
  5. The Three Readings rule, as mentioned by Jeff Berding, is often bypassed. He stated that the goal and the vision of the Task Force is to foster and force transparency upon the government. Excellent! So he advocated for NOT removing the rule. Which, again, was never proposed but necessary to clarify.
  6. It was reiterated, finally, that the proposal was to ADD requirements of digital publication of an ordinance so minority opposition could review and prepare before voted on in Council.
  7. So-called “Super Majority”: Jeff Berding gave the example of the City Budget. If 6 Council Members and the Mayor agree to an ordinance or resolution it can be passed right there. This is a super majority. The three readings are bypassed. The idea is that this requirement of digital publication – for say, 24 hours prior to voting – would afford a minority voice. The digitalization of the ordinance could NOT be bypassed by a super majority.
  8. Committee then discussed the burden of the clerk and legitimate access to a minority in a 24 hour window. Would it be too much for the clerk to post? Would 24 hours be enough time for the minority? No conclusions were made.
  9. Vanessa White raised the issue of business days. Would the posting include weekends and holidays? Presently, submission Friday equals publication Monday.
  10. Silbersack mentioned, “This is a trade off between transparency for the public and efficiency for the government. This proposal of digitalization does slow down the process but increases transparency.”
  • To have the addition of digitalization added to the August 6th deadline to have a ballot measure will not happen. The main committee wanted more information.
  • They also discussed Article II, Section 6, last Paragraph about physical publication(s). Vanessa White raised the issue that, in spite of conservation, the printing ought always be available to the public.
  • The admitted and discussed that for future meetings they need to have more printed information to disseminate to the group and be more clear on their motions and voting process.
  • I left the meeting about 35 minutes early. I was afraid my meter was going to run out and it looked very beautiful outside. I wanted cheese coneys. I felt that was as “Cincinnati” as it could get for the day and I entered the words, “Skyline with extra cheese – Price Hill” in my notes.

My overall impression of the group:

  • Unorganized.
  • Somewhat confused.
  • Very committed to transparency.
  • I also got the sense that they truly care about the charter.
  • Clunky.
  • Most were educated and cogent, a few were not.
  • Many members did not speak at all.
  • The African American community was minimally represented.

My notes are just that: mine. They aren’t meant to be official at all. They are by no means in accordance with Roberts Rules of Order. I am quite sure I missed some things.

My only mission in attending was to get an intuitive feel for the PEOPLE on the Task Force and to understand their thinking.

My disclaimer is that I, in no way, intend this to be an official report. It is my notes and it is my thoughts.

It is, in the true spirit of this website, me… SPEAKING UP!

I plan on attended as many of the public meetings as possible. The Cincinnati City Charter review is a critical process. I cannot express how much of an impacting effect I believe their findings and ballot issues will be for far into the future for Cincinnati.


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