Optimize: to make as effective, perfect, or useful as possible. Dictionary.com sample sentence: “I optimize, automate, and outsource everything in life in order to be more effective.”

By Frank X Murphy

November 1, 2015

Optimize: to make as effective, perfect, or useful as possible.

Dictionary.com sample sentence: “I optimize, automate, and outsource everything in life in order to be more effective.

Governance practices and decisions by Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept. (DWSD) Chief Gary Brown and Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) Chief Sue McCormick show how we have lost our way in fundamental questions of justice and the public interest.

In 2012 P.B. (Pre-Bankruptcy), when she was Director of DWSD, Ms. McCormick tried to award a massive contract worth nearly $50 million to a company called EMA.  This sole source “sweetheart” contract was apparently a reward for EMA’s recommendation – after a whirlwind 90-day review of the system’s operations – that DWSD’s staffing should be cut by 80%!  This shocking manufactured “reality” of gross waste, fraud and abuse was immediately and widely broadcast thru out Detroit’s corporate media.

No supporting data or detailed rationale was publicly offered for such draconian cuts.  The “revelation” that the regional water utility somehow employed five times more People than it “should” was simply taken for granted as part of the overall “Detroit-doesn’t-know-anything” bankrupt dogmas of the emergency management process.  (Even more “attrition” was announced again recently in October 2015 for the very near future.)  It’s often said that Detroit can’t cut our way to recovery from bankruptcy; but DWSD and the Great Lakes Water Austerity, oops I mean Authority (GLWA) will try!

Paradoxically, EMA’s 80% staff cut recommendation directly contradicted many previous studies focused on maintaining the systems’ vast water and sewer infrastructure and water quality.  Responsible officials called for more staffing, not cutbacks, and certainly not massive ones like the EMA recommendation; it was of course quite unpopular, especially among DWSD employees.

Ms. McCormick, Mr. Brown and their state and suburban political sponsors are using misleading language, and mystification of the interests their policies actually serve, to mask fundamental realities and deny the existence of a better alternative path forward that would more effectively serve our fundamental values.  To conceal the real deal, when she was DWSD Director Ms. McCormick started using the word “optimization” for the EMA restructuring process, because it sounds so much better than words like layoffs, outsourcing and privatization.  

Since then, in the contentious and confusing course of the Detroit emergency management and bankruptcy experiences, the word “optimization” has taken on a life of its own in the regional GLWA’s heist of the water and sewer infrastructure owned and – until now – operated by DWSD.  After local leaders nixed a proposal to sell the system to international water corporation Veolia, Ms. McCormick gave Veolia a couple consultant contracts to continue EMA’s work; and she’s recently been named initial Chief Executive Officer of the new GLWA.

The failures of regional water policies during this period have been widely discussed.  People in Flint have been forced for over a year to drink contaminated water.  Reconnection of Flint to the “optimizing” GLWA system is a step that never would have been necessary, if the systems were functioning equitably and efficiently.  Mass shut offs in Detroit; massive flooding in August 2014; toxic algae in western Lake Erie; a continuing series of foreseeable public health emergencies involving access to water – in the very heart of the Great Lakes!    

A crucial, long-term concern about our water systems is investing sufficient resources to maintain and improve the regional infrastructure.  “Optimization”, in practice under Detroit water czar Gary Brown, DWSD, GLWA, Veolia and Ms. McCormick, has focused on corporatization of the systems’ finances – leading to disinvestment.

I conclude by offering a modest contribution towards a just, People’s “optimization” of our water policy, as an alternate way forward that’s intended to benefit public health.  I suggest policies consistent with fiscal health of the water systems that optimize the following priorities:

  1. The demand is safe and affordable water now.  Affordability has to be defined in reference to the policy option envisioned in the 2005 Michigan Welfare Rights/Colton plan.[1]  An express call to end water shutoffs unless and until realistic affordability options are in place, end prosecutions of alleged “illegal turn ons” and turn the water back on for those disconnected.
  2. The commitment is to safe and affordable water as a public and communal good, governed at local, regional and state levels in a bioregional trust that’s transparent, accountable and legitimate.
  3. Another critical commitment is to sufficient future investment in infrastructure – with effective, new cost recovery rates that equitably spread costs over the entire region, and that avoids past financial mismanagement of bond debt.
  4. A long-term commitment to manage the entire Great Lakes watershed in an environmentally sound manner consistent with human rights and public health, that properly stewards the world’s largest source of fresh water.

Brown/McCormick/EMA/Veolia “optimization” leads the proverbial “race to the bottom” – a contest between forcing People in Flint to drink and bathe in poisoned water, and shutting off service en masse to Detroit’s poor.  This alternate optimization is offered as a better framework for understanding and dealing with our water.

Frank X Murphy is the pen name of a Human Being sharing interdependence in the Great Lakes basin.