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Howes: Macomb's Hackel wages own water war on principle

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Mark Hackel's opposition to confidential talks shaping details of the Great Lakes Water Authority, courtesy of a federal gag order, risks leaving Macomb County's chief executive on the outside looking in.

As much as his consistent, and very public, criticism of the mediation overseen by U.S. District Judge Sean Cox may resonate with both constituents and open-government advocates, the simple fact is the other players in this aftershock of Detroit's Chapter 9 bankruptcy don't need Hackel's vote.

They can make the regional authority a reality without him — a risk he says he clearly understands. Whatever the possible ostracism of him or his county, exemplified by his exclusion from a meeting Monday with Cox to discuss details, Hackel shows no sign of muting a rhetorical counter-offensive marked as much by politics as principle.

"This is not mediation," he said in an interview. "This is dictation. I couldn't talk to the public, I couldn't talk to the media, I couldn't talk to the local" governments across the county. "That's unacceptable.

"I'm the county executive. The reason I'm upset about this is I was told to keep my mouth shut. That gag order should have been challenged day one. I am violating nothing. I am giving my opinion of what I think about this process."

And powerbrokers close to the process are giving their opinions privately about what Hackel's opposition is really about: positioning himself for a potential run at the Democratic Party nomination to run for governor in 2018, and using opposition to stealth negotiations over the water authority to bolster his political chops.

Said Hackel: "I'm not running for anything. My name is not on the ballot for anything at this point in time."

That settles it, right? Not exactly — "at this point in time" is a hole the size of Macomb County itself. Moreover, making a political calculation and taking a principled stand at the same time are not mutually exclusive, especially given the pressure the water authority legislation can exert on holdouts like Hackel.

Namely, the bills forming the regional water authority enable the project to go ahead despite a single "no" vote from either Detroit or Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Detroit needs the help and the capital to restructure its beleaguered water department; Wayne County needs Detroit to succeed; and L. Brooks Patterson, sensing the political winds from his party in the governor's office, seconded his best financial minds to craft a deal that is workable and enforceable.

That leaves Hackel the odd man out, head of a constituency proving consistently to be the most skeptical among the three of regional deals that are perceived to — or, in fact, do — benefit Detroit institutions in need of fresh capital and broader support. Think the millage to support the Detroit Institute of Arts, now controlled by a charitable non-profit, and the city's sprawling Water and Sewerage Department that would be overseen by the regional water authority.

Hackel's right when he says the details are important: "We can be good partners if we have true mediation and it's open to debate. A public debate is a healthy thing, especially when you're talking about something as vital as water."

Mediation in bankruptcy in general, and Detroit's epic Chapter 9 in particular, are not done in the open for a reason. They are conducted under confidentiality, former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and others have explained, to allow for frank exchanges of concessionary proposals likely to spark weeks of fierce controversy if aired publicly — before mostly being discarded.

The water deal is no different. Public opposition to Orr's initial proposals, chiefly from Oakland and Macomb counties, evolved into a series of compromises proving to be more acceptable to Patterson's financial sharpies and more likely to culminate in a deal, with or without Hackel.

The Macomb exec's position as official skeptic may resonate with many of his constituents (and many in Metro Detroit who aren't). Still, there is a not insignificant risk that Hackel is betting wrong and he may, as one insider put it, "end up on the wrong side of history."

First, regional management of Cobo Center, an iconic Detroit asset, is proving successful. It's an example of what smart, fiscally sound management can deliver; it's also a template for what regional oversight of Detroit's water department could mean for an asset so important to southeast Michigan.

Second, how could effectively opposing an authority championed as much by Democrats in Detroit and Wayne County as Republicans in Oakland and Lansing be a political winner for someone with statewide political ambitions, should they exist? At a minimum, it's a fraught calculation.

Finally, Michigan's savviest deal-makers in local government today are the ones working with Judge Cox to craft a solution that will affect nearly half the state's population in the years ahead. That, alone, is reason to be part of the process — if you want to shape he outcome.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at