GLWA board accepts resignation of CEO McCormick

Sarah Rahal Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Great Lakes Water Authority formally accepted the resignation of CEO Sue McCormick on Wednesday after weeks of fallout over the way the authority addressed the late June rain and flooding. 

The six-member board accepted the resignation during a Wednesday meeting, setting in motion a 60-day clock for her departure. Board members can make her resignation effective earlier if needed.

Board members asked that the terms of the separation be put in writing but expressed interest in appointing an interim leader soon. 

McCormick built "a more than adequate, an outstanding staff" and one could step up in the interim, said Gary Brown, director for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. But something needs to be done soon with rain predicted for later Wednesday, he said.

"I for one want to understand that there’s somebody in charge," Brown said.

Board member Brian Baker said McCormick had a tough job and did well in that position. 

"You were the person who was able to stand this authority up the first five years, and I think we owe you credit for that," Baker said. 

Members of the public weighed in on the resignation as well amid frustration over more flooding in July. 

Tyler Betthauser warned the board that he would "hound" them until issues with the GLWA infrastructure were fixed. His home sustained about $19,000 in damage. 

"Sue McCormick, I don’t accept your resignation because you need to fix this," said Betthauser, who didn't indicate where he lived. "This is not accountability. Walking away is not accountability.”

City and regional officials weighed in Wednesday on McCormick's impending departure of the head of the Great Lakes Water Authority following weeks of severe flooding in Metro Detroit.

Brown, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller issued statements ahead of the afternoon meeting.

The Detroit News first reported Tuesday on McCormick's plan to leave the authority. The decision comes after severe flooding in late June and earlier this month damaged thousands of homes in Detroit as well as nearby Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and several Grosse Pointe communities. The rainfall also left numerous freeways and other roadways in Metro Detroit under water and prompted public outrage over the region's infrastructure.

Great Lakes Water Authority Sue McCormick CEO speaks during a press conference at the Great Lakes Water Authority Water Resource Recovery Facility, in Detroit, July 8, 2021.

McCormick faced questions Tuesday from Detroit's council in response to a Monday report by The News that revealed a power outage at the Freud pump station in Detroit sat unfixed for two days before the "1,000-year" rain event hit June 25 and before the authority contends it knew about it.

McCormick said she was unaware of the power outage that compromised the major city pump station days ahead of June's rainstorms. She told the City Council that the electrical issue was not immediately reported to GLWA leadership and that an investigation into the rain events is underway.

Miller in a statement Wednesday said McCormick's decision to step down is "the right thing."

"The GLWA has an opportunity now to do a nationwide search for an operational expert who can get the most out of existing infrastructure assets and advocate for the investment needed to position our region properly for the future," Miller said. "The independent investigation will most likely show other management failures, which will need to be addressed going forward."

Duggan also noted it was the "right time" and wished her well. 

"I think it was a good decision today I think it’s the right thing for everybody," Duggan said. 

The GLWA board will conduct a national search for a new CEO and hopes to hire someone that can "bring new energy and innovative solutions," said Brown, who, in his statement, thanked McCormick for her years of service and guidance since GLWA's inception in 2016.

GLWA serves Detroit and 126 other southeast Michigan communities, leasing the infrastructure and facilities from the city of Detroit for at least another 34 years.

"Sue’s resignation today creates an opportunity to focus on improvements in the regional system to address climate resiliency," Brown added. "Detroit residents and businesses and GLWA’s regional customers must have the confidence that when it rains, the regional system is fully functioning."

Brown said while no sewer system can prevent backups from all rain events, "we must do better together."

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said the resignation offers an opportunity to rebuild public trust. 

“I look forward to working with members of GLWA’s board to understand the system-wide issues that contributed to our recent flooding, and I am hopeful new leadership will work with local leaders to craft a comprehensive infrastructure investment plan that will give residents peace of mind and confidence in GLWA’s ability to handle the storms that are to come," Evan said. 

Detroit has received more than 25,000 flood claims tied to the June 25 and June 26 rain storms and more than 33,000 overall for those events and separate rainfall on July 16, DWSD said Tuesday. 

"I look forward to participating in the selection of the next CEO who, in my view, needs to possess broad experience in managing a large water and sewer system that serves diverse communities, and a track record of directing capital improvements that not only effectively manage tremendous daily operations but create the capacity to respond to these larger rainstorms," Brown said.

In a letter to the authority’s board of directors Tuesday, McCormick said she had initially planned to meet with the board last month prior to the historic flooding to review her employment and her plans “to pursue other options available.”

“While I remain flexible, I look forward to working with Chairman (John) Zech to finalize a date for my departure,” she said in the letter obtained by The Detroit News. 

While her position is “at will,” McCormick noted she is required to give 60 days’ notice of resignation or retirement. She added it was her hope to develop a transition plan that would allow for a “smooth succession.”

“While I am extremely proud of all the GLWA team has accomplished in its first five years, I also recognize that now is the time for me to make my future intentions public as we all move forward,” McCormick said.

McCormick has said this summer's heavy rainfall overwhelmed the GLWA regional system and was not caused by any single pumping station or any single element within the regional system, adding she doesn't believe the flood could have been prevented.

In her letter Tuesday, McCormick said she is supportive of internal and independent reviews of the flooding. She added the authority's board should strive for effective and affordable future system functions as well as investments in improved power and water utilities.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said he learned Tuesday evening that McCormick had submitted the resignation letter to the authority's board and he welcomed that decision.

“I think it’s time for new leadership and a new direction,” Hackel said. “I wish her well, but it’s probably a good thing for all involved.”

Meanwhile, residents in Grosse Pointe Park — one of the areas served by the Conner Creek and Freud pump stations — have filed suit over flooding damage on the premise that officials should have been more prepared. 

GLWA estimates it will cost $250 million to further improve the Freud Street and Conner Creek pumping stations. The authority said it plans to spend $1.7 billion over the next five years for water and sewage improvements in the state, including $285 million slotted for next year.

Brown told Detroit's council this week that a separate investigation of issues involving the pumping station on Freud Street took place after heavy rains in 2016. Since then, Brown added, $30 million has been invested into the station "to rebuild those pumps and those pumps worked as designed."

McCormick said after the 2016 failure, water officials reconstructed some pumps.

McCormick is the first chief of the GLWA, overseeing 40% of the state's water customers, or 3.9 million people.

The water authority was forged during Detroit's historic bankruptcy following months of talks between regional officials. It started its independent regional operations in 2016 separate from the city of Detroit but signed a 40-year lease for control over the DWSD treatment plants, major water transmission mains, sewage interceptors for $50 million per year.

Staff Writer Benjamin Wilson contributed.