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Trial of Detroit water activists delayed, City to release new water plan in January

Maude Barlow speaking in Windsor

Maude Barlow in Windsor, October 2015

In July 2014, nine people blocked trucks from leaving Homrich Inc., the company contracted by the City of Detroit to disconnect water services for people behind in their water bill payments.

They were Marian Kramer of Michigan Welfare Rights, Marianne McGuire, a former member of the State Board of Education, Joan Smith of the Jeanie Wylie Community, Dr. James Perkinson of Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Kim Redigan, a theology teacher at a Detroit high school, Hans Barbe, David Olson, Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellermann, and Baxter Jones of Beat Back the Bullies Brigade.

Eight of the ‘Homrich 9’ were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

More than 33,000 accounts were shutoff in 2014 according to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. The Homrich 9 have argued that this is a violation of the human right to water and that their actions to block the water service disconnection trucks was to intended to stop this “imminent harm” to people in Detroit.

They have also insisted from the start for a jury trial.

The trial for five of the defendants has been postponed, while the trial for two of the defendants began last month.

But on Dec. 2, Michigan Radio reported, “In an unusual move, a Wayne County judge has stepped in to halt a trial in progress in a lower court. Two Detroit activists are on trial for disorderly conduct, a criminal misdemeanor, in 36th District Court. The case was about to go to the jury, but city lawyers, unhappy with the proceedings, wanted a mistrial. District Court Judge Ruth Garrett denied the request. So on Monday [Nov. 30], the city — without the defendants’ or their attorneys’ knowledge — went to Wayne County Circuit Court, and asked Judge Michael Hathaway for a temporary stay, which he granted.”

That news article adds, “The jury was set to start deliberating a verdict after a nearly two-week trial [but now] the trial itself is on hold.” The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization explains, “The City of Detroit doesn’t want the jury’s trial court decision to go on record as a win for the people documenting the abuse against residents who are denied the human right to water!”

On Dec. 16, CBS reported, “A committee studying water affordability met for the final time [Dec. 15] before finalizing a report due in January to City Council. Debt-forgiveness for those behind on their bills isn’t expected to be included. …[Instead it] will stress conservation, convenience and assistance to those having difficulty paying.”

The problem continues to be a serious one and is unlikely to be solved by the City’s plan. The Detroit News reported last week that, “Citywide, a third of all residential accounts in Detroit— 68,000 of 200,000 — are at least 60 days past due, city records show. As of Thursday [Dec. 10], 9,200 residential customers face shutoffs, [says] Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.”

The Council of Canadians and the Blue Planet Project believe that the shutting off of water services is a violation of United Nations-recognized human right to water and sanitation. We also support the plan put forward by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization that calls for the adoption of 1) a rate affordability program, consisting of a rate discount component, an [arrears] management component and a water conservation component; 2) designated fundamental consumer protections involving late fees, service disconnections, and payment plans; and 3) designated collection initiatives directed toward customers having an ability-to-pay.”

We will be looking to our allies in Detroit for their fuller analysis of the City’s plan when it is released in January.

A delegation Council of Canadians chapter activists, Board members and staff met with Detroit activists this past October, you can read more about that visit here.