Sarah Cwiek

Sarah Cwiek - Detroit Reporter/Producer

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October, 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit. Before her arrival at Michigan Radio, Sarah worked at WDET-FM as a reporter and producer.

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A Detroit water shutoff notice for Haylard Management.
Ali Elisabeth / Michigan Radio

Witness testimony began in federal bankruptcy court this morning, in hearings to determine the fate of Detroit’s water shutoff policy.

A coalition of Detroit residents and advocacy groups filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s controversial shutoff policy on constitutional and civil rights grounds.

The Detroit water department has shut off around 19,000 customers this year – the vast majority of them residential accounts – in an effort to collect up to $120 million in delinquent bill payments.

Water department officials say the system simply can’t continue to function when thousands of people aren’t paying their bills.

Critics say the shutoff campaign has been inhumane, and the department is trying to correct decades of mismanagement, corruption, and incompetence on the backs of the poor in just a few months as Detroit speeds through bankruptcy court.

The first witnesses were Detroiters Tracy Peasant and Maurikia Lyda, who experienced the shutoff process.

Peasant became visibly emotional on the stand, as she testified about having to buy bottled water for her family when her water was shut off for 8 months.

From Sandra Svoboda at Next Chapter Detroit, Michigan Radio’s partner in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative:

[Peasant] said a large portion of her outstanding bill was due to a faulty sprinkler system at a home she had rented prior to living at her current place. Her water was turned off a year ago and restored in June.

“Someone came out to my home driving a DWSD truck. I thought that she was coming to turn the water back on. … She said I’m here to make sure your water is still cut off,” Peasant testified.

But when the worker saw Peasant’s family members, “She said I can’t do this with these kids and when she left she said you have water now,” Peasant said.

Peasant said she was denied access to assistance funds because her bill was too high, and the city never told her she could ask for a hearing to contest the bill.

Lyda testified that she tried to talk to someone at the water department about getting on a payment plan for her overdue bill, but was never able to get through. Again from Next Chapter Detroit:

“I called them several times. I could never get through. I was calling and no one would ever pick up the phone. There were days I would call and stay on the phone two and three hours at a time,” Lyda said. “When I finally got to talk to someone about my bill they was telling me there was so much I had to put down. …  I didn’t want to put it in my name because I was a renter. … they was telling me I had to put it in my name.”

Lyda, who lives on the east side, said a DWSD representative told her it would cost $100 to transfer the water service to her name and $500 to have service restored.

But the day the lawsuit was filed, her water was restored.

Plaintiffs want Judge Steven Rhodes to issue a moratorium on the water shutoffs.

The water department stepped up shutoffs in March of accounts 60 days behind or owing more than $150. About 15,000 customers had service shut off in April through June.

The city has faced international criticism for the shutoffs, and several groups appealed to the United Nations for support.

The shutoffs were suspended about a month this summer to give water officials time to inform customers about service stoppages and payment plans.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The Detroit City Council has rejected a proposal to transfer thousands of city-owned properties to the Detroit land bank.

The resolution, put forward by Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, would move up to 45,000 tax-reverted properties to the Detroit land bank.

And it would have moved all such properties the city acquires in the future directly to the land bank, bypassing the Council entirely.

Council members bristled at that last portion of the deal. They rejected the measure unanimously.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The Detroit City Council has approved the city’s participation in the Great Lakes Water Authority.

The city of Detroit currently owns and operates most of southeast Michigan’s regional water system.

The 40-year deal lets the city retain ownership of all the water system’s assets, and Detroit keep control of day-to-day operations within city limits.

But a new Great Lakes Water Authority takes control of operations outside the city. It will lease the regional assets for $50 million a year.

The re-trial of a Detroit police officer who killed a young girl during a May 2010 raid began Thursday.

No one disputes that Officer Joseph Weekley shot seven-year-old Aiyana Jones to death as police raided her home looking for a murder suspect.

In fact, much of what happened that night was captured on film by camera crews from the A&E reality TV show “The First 48.”

via detroitmi.gov

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan pitched a proposal creating a new regional water authority to the Detroit City Council Wednesday.

Duggan has signed a memorandum of understanding moving day-to-day control over Detroit’s regional water system to a new Great Lakes Water Authority.

That Authority would be governed by a 6-member board, with representatives appointed by the city and Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

Preparing track for the M-1 rail project in Detroit.
M-1 Rail / Facebook

Dignitaries including Michigan Gov. Snyder, Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, Representatives John Dingell and John Conyers, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and business leaders Roger Penske and Dan Gilbert were on hand for a "track signing" ceremony this morning in Detroit.

The M-1 rail project is streetcar line planned for a 3.3. mile stretch along Woodward Ave. in Detroit. The project has received more than $35 million in federal funds, but the majority of its financing comes from private backers.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The Detroit City Council is slated to vote this week on a plan that would speed big city property transfers to the Detroit land bank.

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr proposed the measure last week, allowing the city to transfer some city-owned properties directly to the land bank without Council approval.

It would move up to 45,000 tax-reverted properties to the Detroit land bank’s control, and convey any such land the city acquires in the future directly to the land bank.

Currently, the City Council has some say in how the city disposes of those properties.

Detroit has hammered out a deal with its fiercest foe in bankruptcy court, possibly smoothing the way for the city to leave bankruptcy quickly.

Bond insurer Syncora Guarantee, Inc. had fought the city’s proposed plan of adjustment at every turn.

That restructuring plan would have forced the company to take hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

Kate Boicourt / IAN

After months of tense mediation in bankruptcy court, Detroit and suburban leaders have finally reached a deal on the city’s water system.

The 40-year agreement between the city and Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties will create the Great Lakes Water Authority.

Under the deal, Detroit will retain ownership of the whole system, and control over city operations.

The GLWA will lease and operate Detroit water system assets outside city limits. And it will pay Detroit $50 million a year to improve water infrastructure inside the city.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The Detroit City Council is poised to vote today on a land deal that makes way for a new bridge to Canada—but their decision might not matter.

The proposal would transfer 301 parcels of mostly unoccupied, city-owned land to the Michigan land bank for $1.4 million.

It’s just the start of the US-based land acquisition process for the proposed new bridge between Detroit and Windsor. Canada is footing the bill for the project.

The Michigan Democratic Party is expanding its effort to kickstart the absentee voting process online.

Party officials announced Thursday that voters statewide can now apply for absentee ballots online, through the website miabsentee.com.

The site is designed for mobile internet devices. MDP chair Lon Johnson said this is about merging two trends: more people choosing absentee voting, and the growing use of mobile devices.

Ross Kuhn / via Facebook

Some Detroit residents and activists are trying to put water shutoffs on hold—again.

The Detroit water department resumed its residential water shut-off program for delinquent customers this week. It’s trying to collect more than $80 million in back payments.

The city had put the controversial program on hold for about a month, while holding water assistance fairs and giving those who struggle to pay their bills time to get on payment plans.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The city of Detroit is looking for plans to re-develop the former Brewster-Wheeler recreation center.

The center is best known as the place where Detroit boxing legends Joe Louis got their start in the sport.

It also served as an important community hub for generations of Detroiters who lived in and around the recently-demolished Brewster-Douglass housing projects.

But it’s fallen into disrepair since it closed in 2006, and was recently added to the city’s demolition list.

Now Mayor Mike Duggan is making a final push to re-develop it instead.

Detroit Public Schools

After a public outcry, the Detroit Public Schools is walking back plans to cut teacher pay and boost class sizes.

The district is battling a $127 million deficit, and the Michigan Department of Education approved its revised deficit elimination plan last week.

It called for cutting teachers’ pay by 10% (on top of another 10% pay cut imposed in 2011), and putting up to 43 students in some classrooms.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

A federal judge has dismissed two federal consent decrees against the Detroit Police Department, freeing it from strict federal oversight.

The department has been monitored for compliance with the decrees since 2003, after a US Justice Department investigation found a “pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing.”

The problems included unlawfully detaining witnesses, “deplorable” holding cell conditions, and chronic use of excessive force.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

A state emergency loan board  agreed to lend the Detroit Public Schools $111 million to make up for a funding shortfall, on the same day state schools superintendent Mike Flanagan approved the district's new deficit elimination plan.

The state expects to lend about 200 school districts money to help them start the school year. That is normal in Michigan, which doesn’t send its first school aid payments until October.

But in Detroit, the process has pitted the school board in the state’s largest district against its emergency manager.

EPA

An environmental group’s report says climate change is already affecting how Americans experience the outdoors.

The National Wildlife Federation’s report “Ticked Off: America’s outdoor experience and climate change” cites this summer’s toxic algal blooms in Western Lake Erie as a prime example of the phenomenon.

Detroit officials are trying to boost aid programs for people who struggle to pay their water bills--before the city starts shutting off residential customers again.

The United Way and the philanthropic arms of Ford and General Motors announced a combined $200,000 in donations to the Detroit Water Fund Monday.

That fund is designed to help eligible Detroiters pay up to 25% of their delinquent water bill.

A Muslim civil rights group is suing the federal government on behalf of five Michigan plaintiffs who are challenging their placement on the government’s “terror watchlist.”

MDOT / via Facebook

Governor Snyder declared parts of southeast Michigan a “disaster area” Wednesday after this week’s widespread flooding.

The Governor issued an official declaration of disaster for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. In a statement accompanying it he called the flood damage in southeast Michigan “a disaster in every sense of the word.”

MDOT / via Facebook

Metro Detroit got hit with a record-breaking burst of rain Monday night—up to six inches in some spots.

The deluge left highways flooded, motorists stranded and thousands of basements swamped.

As the waters receded, it was time to clean up and assess the damage. Here’s a report from one of the hardest-hit areas: southeast Oakland County.

The state's busiest interchange, underwater

The I-75/696 interchange is the right at the heart of Metro Detroit’s freeway system—the busiest interchange in the state.

Lex Dodson / via Instagram

Late yesterday afternoon, it started raining hard over much of southeast Michigan.

When it finally let up over 3 hours later, a record-breaking 4.57 inches of rain had fallen at Detroit Metro Airport. Some spots got even more.

According to WDIV meteorologist Paul Gross, it was “one of the heaviest single rainfall totals in Detroit weather history.”

The National Weather Service had anticipated heavy afternoon showers, and warned of possible flooding in some areas.

Wikipedia

Civil rights groups, Muslim community and Dearborn city leaders are denouncing that city’s apparent designation as a terrorist hotspot.

The Intercept, an online magazine, obtained secret documents from the National Counterterrorism Center listing “known or suspected terrorists.”

They contain a graphic showing the top 5 locations for “known and suspected terrorists” in the US.

Dearborn Heights Police

A Wayne County jury has convicted suburban Detroit homeowner Theodore Wafer of second-degree murder for shooting Renisha McBride on his front porch last November. 

Wafer claimed he shot McBride on his Dearborn Heights front porch in self-defense. He said he feared for his life after the young woman came “pounding violently” on his front door in the middle of the night.

It’s never been clear how McBride got to Wafer’s front door. She was unarmed, but had been drinking and smoking marijuana. Hours earlier, she’d been in a car accident and may have also suffered a concussion.

Dearborn Heights Police

Theodore Wafer took the stand to testify in his own defense for a second straight day Tuesday.

Wafer is on trial for second-degree murder in the November shooting death of 19-year-old Renisha McBride.

Wafer said he shot McBride on his Dearborn Heights front porch in self-defense, claiming he feared for his life after the young woman came “pounding violently” on his front door in the middle of the night.

Detroit Congressman John Conyers is poised to return to Washington as “Dean of the House.”

Conyers will run for a 26th term in Congress after cruising to victory in the 13th district Democratic primary last night.

Conyers was first elected to Congress in 1964. Now that fellow Michigan Congressman John Dingell is retiring, the civil rights icon is set to become the longest-serving member of the House.

Conyers would be the first African American to serve that role--something he calls a “crowning achievement.”

Wayne State University

Wayne State University is hoping new tuition incentives will push more students to graduate in four years.

Starting next year, Wayne State will offer some full-time students a 30% tuition discount during the spring and summer semesters.

The idea is to encourage students who may need a more staggered courseload during the regular school year to keep taking classes all year.

In our political system, sometimes the primary election is the election.

That’s the case in Metro Detroit’s 14th Congressional district, where the winner of the Democratic primary is virtually guaranteed a win November.

There are three major candidates in this year’s primary, making for a pretty competitive race in a very strange district.

A “geographical monstrosity”

Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian officials have vowed to forge ahead with plans to build a new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor.

Snyder and Canada’s Transport Minister, Lisa Raitt, announced appointments to the International Bridge Authority in Windsor on Wednesday.

The Detroit water department recently announced a temporary break in its campaign to cut service to delinquent customers—but some people are still being shut off.

Last week, water officials agreed to a 15-day “pause” in water shutoffs, which have ramped up since March as the department tries to collect millions in delinquent payments.

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