Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Former DWSD Head Engineer Weighs in on Changes Ordered by Judge Cox

Former Head Water Systems Engineer, Dennis L. Green, P.E., who retired from DWSD in 2009 after more than 40 years of service, recently weighed in on the recent changes ordered by Judge Cox in a Letter to the Editor published by the Detroit Free Press published (here) on November 8, 2011:
U.S. District Judge Sean Cox’s call for structural changes in the Detroit Water Department (“Judge Sean Cox’s ruling” Nov. 5) came on the heels of the disbanding of the DWSD Engineering Division. It’s no coincidence that the decades of struggle with EPA compliance similarly began on the heels of another event involving Engineering.

In 1975, a new Detroit City Charter replaced the tenured chief engineer with a director serving at the pleasure of the mayor and removed the requirement for a Professional Engineer (PE) license.

With civil service tenure’s protection from arbitrary dismissal, the chief engineer could take his objections regarding any ill-conceived policy of the mayor or Board of Water Commissioners to the public without fear of reprisal. A PE license requires an oath to protect the public health and safety, but serving at the pleasure of the mayor, an unlicensed director’s loyalty is to the administration before the public.

Prior to 1975, DWSD had a worldwide reputation for its engineering and operational success, and its professionals dominated the committees writing the industry's standards. Then, without the check and balance between public safety concerns represented by a licensed engineer and the politics of the Board of Water Commissioners, it took only two years for the politicians to wreck the nation's most respected water system, provoking acrimony with its customers and the EPA.

U.S. District Judge John Feikens’ oversight of DWSD was an abject failure. The billing squabbles between DWSD and its suburban customers festered for years. They eventually ended not because of the negotiating skills of his approved politicians and consultants, but as a result of an in-house engineering breakthrough that restored integrity to the billing process.

After years of failure by outside consultants, the Archer administration listened to me, my staff and people doing the actual work. Just like creating a credible water bill, creating a functional, efficient and maintainable treatment plant also begins as an engineering problem that can't be solved by imposing capricious court-ordered deadlines on politicians who won't or can't comprehend the problem.

If Judge Cox and Mayor Dave Bing want a working sewage treatment plant, they need to do what the proposed and existing charters fail to do: demand a director with a PE license, and make sure that director has sufficient political independence to do the job.
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