Detroit water chief Gary Brown: Real work just starting

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Gary Brown has been a Detroit cop, a city councilman, an aide to the city’s emergency manager and one of the mayor’s top lieutenants.

In October, he added director of Michigan’s largest water utility and one of the biggest in the country — the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department — to his resume. He’ll earn $175,000 as head of the department, according to city officials.

Some critics say he isn’t the best man for the job, because he has never managed a public utility. Others praise him as a reformer who gets things done.

“I was surprised they wanted to make him director of the water department,” said William Davis, president of the Detroit Active and Retired Employee Association, a grassroots group that’s a vocal critic of the city government and the city’s 2013 bankruptcy. “I don’t think he is that good.”

Brown defends his appointment and qualifications. Since the department is getting out of the business of running water and sewerage plants, he says he doesn’t need to be an engineer or a chemist.

“My expertise is managing people,” he said. “I don’t need to understand bio-solids. My strength is going to be managing people and it doesn’t matter if they’re police officers with guns or people working for the public services or public lighting department.”

In a 26-year career with the city’s Police Department, Brown rose through the ranks to become deputy chief in charge of its Professional Accountability Bureau. He retired from the department in 2003.

Brown also won a multimillion-dollar whistle-blower lawsuit that led to the downfall of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Brown and another police officer sued the city and Kilpatrick for punishing them for investigating possible overtime abuses involving the mayor’s police bodyguards at events that may have included an infamous — but never proven — wild party at the Manoogian Mansion.

On Nov. 4, 2009, Brown was elected the City Council’s president pro tem.

Nearly four years later, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr named Brown his chief compliance officer, responsible for right-sizing and reforming city operations to improve public services.

Five months after that, newly elected Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan named Brown his group executive for operations, putting him in charge of improving city services. The job paid $147,500 a year, according to officials.

And in October, Duggan appointed him executive director of the water department.

Brown said he asked Duggan for the job and pointed to his accomplishments as the mayor’s chief operating officer as well as his years of working on water department issues while on the City Council. “I saw it as an opportunity to run one of the largest municipal utilities in the country.”

Change for department

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is a city-owned and operated utility that goes back to the 1800s and provides water to more than 125 communities in eight counties. It also provides sewer service to the city and 75 neighboring communities.

The department is in the middle of historic and radical change.

This past summer, the state, Detroit and Oakland and Wayne counties agreed to turn over the city’s water and sewer system to the Great Lakes Water Authority for the next 40 years under a deal stemming from Detroit’s bankruptcy. A board made up of one representative each from the state, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties and two from the city of Detroit — Brown and Deputy Mayor Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon — is in charge of overseeing the authority.

In June, the regional authority’s six-member board voted to lease the system from Detroit for $50 million a year plus about $50 million a year toward pension costs and a fund to help struggling customers pay their bills.

The Great Lakes Water Authority is set to take control of the water and sewer system on Jan. 1, meaning 3 million customers in suburban communities will get their service from the authority, not Detroit’s water department.

Sue McCormick, Brown’s water department predecessor, had been simultaneously serving as the regional authority’s interim CEO and the DWSD’s executive director. In October, she was named the authority’s CEO.

Meanwhile, the DWSD will become one of the authority’s wholesale customers and provide service to Detroit residents. Brown said that means the water department will become a retail operation, and he’s set on improving customer service and developing a sound capital improvement plan as his top priorities.

Because of federal regulations, the head of a water utility should be well-versed in its technical and financial aspects, experts said.

“In a major water system, experience working in the sector is very relevant, not just in terms of knowledge of how utilities work but in terms of participating in the broader professional community,” said Janice Beecher, a Michigan State University professor and director of its nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute of Public Utilities in East Lansing.

“Ideally, a leader will bring skill and experience across these areas and, as importantly, the ability to build an interdisciplinary team for the organization.”

Beecher added a water utility’s director also has to be able to navigate the political environment, including working with other public officials and local stakeholders.

‘Leadership challenge’

“Utilities present a special leadership challenge because they provide a public service and serve the public interest,” she said. “They are expected to be financially sustainable enterprises, which combines public and private sector management skills.”

Stephen Gasteyer, an associate professor in sociology department and one of Beecher’s colleagues, agreed.

“Theoretically, a ... conventional leader could run a utility effectively,” Gasteyer said. “But I think DWSD faces conditions that necessitate rethinking how the organization works — including forming new networks, opening discussions with critics, rethinking how to ensure that services are delivered to constituencies and clients.”

Mike Mulholland, president of the union that represents the water department’s rank-and-file workers, AFSCME Local 27, says Brown isn’t qualified.

“For any of the jobs he’s held — other than being a police officer — I’m not sure where his qualifications lie,” he said. “He played a particularly nasty role in the water department being taken away from the people of Detroit and given to the Great Lakes Water Authority.”

Mulholland was referring to Brown serving as one of four members on the “Root Cause Committee,” a panel ordered in 2011 by a federal judge to develop a plan to overhaul the department.

In its final report, issued in 2013, the committee recommended the city lease its water system to a standalone public authority. Davis said Brown’s appointment was political.

“The mayor just wanted to get one of his buddies into the job,” said Davis, who retired from the water department after 34 years. “(Duggan) keeps a lot of his old friends close to him. He keeps putting incompetent people in places. I don’t think McCormick was qualified to run the department and Brown is even less qualified than her.”

Duggan defends Brown’s appointment. “Gary is an outstanding administrator who has helped modernize many city services and generate significant cost savings,” Duggan said in his announcement that he had nominated Brown for the job.

He cited Brown’s accomplishments — managing the city’s switch to private trash collection, putting together a Department of Public Works team of 40 dedicated to removing illegal dumping, leading an upgrade of the Public Works Department’s vehicle fleet, implementing the city’s new parking system, instituting citywide trash recycling and coordinating the transfer of the city’s public lighting department to DTE Energy.

A little more than a month after getting the job, Brown said it was going well.

“But the new job really starts Jan. 1,” he said. “Right now we’re transitioning.”

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Gary Brown’s Detroit career

■October 2015:Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan appoints Brown executive director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

■November 2013: Duggan appoints Brown his group executive for operations, responsible for ensuring the continued improvement of city services.

■June 2013: Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr names Brown chief compliance officer.

■Nov. 4, 2009: Voters elect Brown president pro tem of the Detroit City Council

■Deputy chief, Detroit Police Department’s Professional Accountability Bureau

■His career with the police department spanned 26 years.

Source: City of Detroit