By Jan Worth-Nelson
As the court-appointed mediator and two attorneys for the city council sat quietly in the back of the room, eight of nine Flint City Council members today vociferously declared they “will not be bullied” into agreeing to a water supply contract they are not ready to sign.
The special session in city hall chambers was called as an update following a week of reportedly intense mediation efforts in the Detroit courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson between the city council and attorneys from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The MDEQ had set an Oct. 1 deadline — this Sunday –for the city council to vote on a 30-year contract for the city’s water supply with the Great Lakes Water Authority.
With First Ward Councilman Eric Mays as the lone dissenter, the council members have been resisting agreeing to the proposed contract, saying that they want more information and more time to consider the implications of the agreement and its terms — particularly how it would affect residents’ water rates.
Fourth Ward councilwoman Kate Fields, one of the three members on the ad hoc committee of the council participating in the mediation process, said her impression from the discussions so far, which she termed “a tortuous process,” have convinced her the MDEQ representatives, “don’t care about Flint’s right to self-determination–they don’t believe in letting the duly elected representatives of Flint make the decisions. They are quite willing to manipulate the law in any way they want to get what they want. If this is such a great deal for Flint why are they trying to ram this down our throats?”
“We will persevere –the city council is trying to do well by you, to get all the information we can, so the public can make known their wishes,” Fields said, addressing the small audience. “Governor Snyder and his crew don’t care — they just want what they want and are determined to get it, through bullying and power plays.”
Scott Kincaid, another of the three members of the ad hoc committee in the water standoff, said, “We are still in mediation –we hope to come up with a resolution, and we will continue to work toward that process.”
” This council’s focus is reliable, safe and affordable drinking water for this community — that’s our focus,” Kincaid said. “It’s not about anything else and we’re going to continue to work on that process until the court makes a decision, and that’s the reason we’re here today.”
Sixth Ward councilman Herbert Winfrey. another of the three-person ad hoc group, said, “This committee was court-ordered to do what we’re doing by the federal government. We have been negotiating and trying to make a deal that is in the best interests of the citizens of the city of Flint. When it becomes a resolution it will come to the floor and will be made public.”
“I would rather go to jail”
“If it means we have to get locked up, I don’t know, I would rather go to jail than sign something like this,” Councilwoman and Council Vice-president Vicki Van Buren said to cheers from a small audience of residents and water activists. VanBuren is leaving the council after losing in the Aug. 5 primary by one vote.
She thanked the ad hoc committee, and said “From day one, we have been told what to do and when to do it, without having all the information we need.
“I thought everyone was concerned about bullying tactics, like in our schools, but when it comes to the state, it’s as if they’ve never heard the word,” Van Buren stated. “It’s their way, or no way. Flint has been stuck for years and years with the decisions that they have made.”
“Any Pepto Bismol?”
Most often a reserved participant on the board, VanBuren spoke with uncharacteristic ire, especially after First Ward Councilman Eric Mays dominated the council’s early proceedings with numerous parliamentary objections, accusations that he was being cut off, and questions about how much of confidential communications could be made public. He accused the ad hoc committee –Fields, Kincaid, and Winfrey–of engaging in politics, “making deals in the back room,” without enough transparency. The other council members indicated the ad hoc committee had their full support in representing them in the mediation process.
When she found herself unable to finish a summary statement because Mays continued to speak over her, Second Ward Councilwoman Jackie Poplar turned to Mays and said, “This diarrhea of the mouth has got to stop.” An audience member then jumped up and shouted, “Does anybody in the house have Pepto Bismol?” at which point the meeting threatened to fall into complete disarray. Two police officers walked toward Mays at the front of the chamber, Council president Kerry Nelson pleaded with Mays to be quiet, and the statements continued.
History of Detroit water controversy goes back years
The latest stalemate is a part of ongoing drama around the city’s water crisis involving Detroit water. The crisis, as many now understand, was triggered in 2014 when Flint moved from Detroit water to the Flint River. That was billed as a cost cutting measure by then Emergency Manager Darnell Earley. But the move was related to the city’s plans to pull out of the Great Lakes Water Authority and join the Karegnondi Pipeline Authority instead. The KWA pipeline, city officials thought, would create a cheaper and more direct connection to Lake Huron water, with more Flint-based control, than the longtime Detroit source. When the GWLA threatened to cut Flint off its water supply before the KWA pipeline was completed, the emergency manager — eventually with city council support–opted for the Flint River instead.
After all that came next, the city finally went back onto Detroit water in October of 2015 under an interim agreement with GLWA. In the months of controversy since, city and state officials have struggled to come up with a permanent plan to supply the city with water. In April, Mayor Karen Weaver announced, in coordination with state officials, that she was recommending the city permanently stay with GLWA, and proposed a 30-year contract that has been the source of heated debate ever since. The council, many of whom said at the time said they felt left out of the process, has never agreed to the proposal.
Comments emerging from an audience of about 20 residents suggested community members also have doubts about the proposed contract.
“Thank you for acting as if we have a voice”
Sherry Hayden, vice-president of the College Cultural Neighborhood Association and a longtime resident of the Seventh Ward, said, “We no longer live in a democracy — as a resident of Flint, I have no power,” asserting the Governor’s office and the unelected Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB) “can force anything down our throats, including a bad water deal with Detroit.”
Hayden contended that with Flint’s water bills already the highest in the nation, “we cannot afford to trust Governor Snyder, the MDEQ and the Weaver administration.”
She added, “Even if GLWA was a good deal, we wouldn’t know, since Snyder, the MDEQ and the Weaver administration have failed to give us a true cost comparison. Obviously they think we are stupid.”
Amid cheers from the audience, Hayden declared, “Please refuse to be complicit with these abusers. Thank you to the members of council who are standing up to the bullies. Thank you for not relinquishing your power to represent us. Thank you for acting as if we have rights. Thank you for acting as if we have a voice.”
“A modern-day scenario of oppression”
Seventh Ward Councilwoman Monica Galloway said, “We are in a modern day scenario of oppression. Many times we’ve looked at it as a state of race, but this is oppression of a class and a community of people.” The residents of the city of Flint “are going to have to push the envelope all the way to the end” to be treated properly, she said. “Are we willing to make a movement until we’re made whole?”
Mays, however, left the meeting disappointed. “I thought we were coming here today to take action–yea, nay or a proper alternative, but ya’ll are still the same people who don’t want to discuss nothing publicly, politicking again,trying to hide in the closet,” he said.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.