December 16, 2010 at 1:00 am

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department overhaul sought

Official said he had long questioned Ferguson contracts

Detroit— Suburban leaders lashed out at the embattled water department, following Wednesday's indictments of those who oversaw the system.

For years, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been at odds with suburban leaders over water rates and cost overruns. But now it's time for sweeping change, said Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John McCulloch.

McCulloch said he's raised issues for years about contracts issued to Ferguson and presented them to U.S. District Judge John Feikens, who oversaw the water department for decades until his retirement last month.

"The entire system has been extremely dysfunctional, and we need to start with a blank sheet of paper as to how the system is governed and how the system is managed on a day-to-day basis," McCulloch said.

Wednesday's indictment alleges former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and ex-water boss Victor Mercado conspired to steer contracts to Bobby Ferguson and held up millions of dollars in other deals after bidders refused to involve the mayor's longtime friend.

Over the last decade, suburban leaders have pushed for a larger role in the water system, which serves 4 million people in 126 communities. Double-digit increases were common while Mercado led the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts called for an outside auditor. His wish: one member each from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

"It's time we have the water board completely restructured. We have taxation without representation, and today is the beginning of the renewal of that effort," Fouts said.

"Not all has been done above board and fair. There's a dark cloud that hangs on the water board."

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said the size and scope of the indictment was telling.

"You can see why it took so long — the paper trail is complex," Patterson said.

"They've got videotape, wiretaps. They weren't going to charge prematurely. They nailed it down pretty strong," he said of federal prosecutors.

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano called it "another setback for the city and southeast Michigan."

"No one is above the law, and justice must be pursued. I hope the matters are resolved quickly so the region … can move on," Ficano said.

A spokesman for Mayor Dave Bing declined comment. Bing was first elected to complete Kwame Kilpatrick's term after the former mayor quit and went to jail for crimes related to the text message scandal in 2008.

Councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr., who briefly succeeded Kilpatrick as mayor, hoped the indictment marks a turning point.

He said attention should be focused not "on the past misconduct of fallen leaders, but rather on resolving the present day challenges."

Peter Karmanos, the CEO of Compuware Corp. who hired Kilpatrick as a salesman after his jail stint, declined comment.

Oralandar Brand-Williams and Jennifer Chambers contributed.