Duggan, Patterson meet with judge on water authority

Charles E. Ramirez and Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

It's a water fight, but not the fun kind where someone gets playfully splashed on a hot day.

In this one, there are battle lines being drawn and consequences for elected officials and water ratepayers across Metro Detroit.

On Monday, a federal bankruptcy judge held a closed-door meeting with local government leaders to discuss the formation of a regional water authority

The meeting came days after The Detroit News reported the city of Highland Park's unpaid water bills have become a sticking point in negotiations between suburban, city and state leaders over creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority.

It also comes less than two weeks before the deadline for the authority to sign an agreement with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to lease its system.

Officials who attended Monday's meeting were tight-lipped about negotiations because U.S. District Judge Sean Cox, who is overseeing the discussions, forbade them to talk publicly about the negotiations.

Oakland County Deputy Executive Bob Daddow, who was appointed to represent the county on the regional water authority's board, said he could not comment about the meeting because of Cox's gag order.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who also attended Monday's meeting, said it was positive. He was joined by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

He added at no point were there any discussions about dissolving the city of Highland Park.

After years of not collecting water bills from residents, the city of Highland Park owes the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department about $25.6 million.

"It's total fiction," Duggan said. "I just left a meeting with Brooks Patterson and judges; no conversation about Highland Park.

"Brooks Patterson, the judges and I had a conversation, and we're going to continue to work this out."

Meanwhile, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who wasn't invited to the meeting, kept up his criticism of Cox's gag order and what he says is a lack of information from the Water and Sewerage Department about the proposed lease agreement.

"My being vocal about it now created a situation where I'm not allowed to participate in these closed-door, private meetings any more," he said. 'I thought they were a thing of the past."

Hackel said Brian Baker, Macomb County's representative on the Great Lakes Water Authority board and the city budget director in Sterling Heights, was not invited to the meeting either.

"Being ordered into court under a gag order has been a contention of mine since Day One," Hackel said. "The authority is a legal entity. It's supposed to be talking. It's supposed to be a public body that meets under the requirements of the Public Meetings Act, but we're having these meetings behind closed doors."

Hackel said he has no plans to take any legal action to challenge the gag order.

"When you have a federal judge who has issued a gag order, where do you go with that?" he said. "If I challenged it, nothing would come of it anyway. It's unfortunate. This whole thing is being dictated, not mediated. "

Hackel said it's as if his county is being told it has to go along to get along.

"It's a setback for regional cooperation," he said. "It's like (the county) is being told, 'Here are the terms and conditions, you either sign off or you're left out in the dust.' "

He also said he thinks the county officials can come up with a better deal for ratepayers than what's being proposed.

In September, Duggan unveiled the proposed authority after it was hammered out in talks between the city and Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties — and as the city exited bankruptcy.

Under the deal, the three counties agreed to a 40-year, $50 million annual lease of the area's water and sewerage system. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will provide maintenance and service to customers in the city while the authority will serve about 3 million in the suburbs.

A six-member board, made up of two representatives from Detroit, one from each of the three counties and one appointed by the governor, will run the authority.

In February, Cox ordered officials to hold confidential talks about the authority after county executives criticized the validity of the information the city provided on the water department.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

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