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Wednesday, November 25,2009

Who's checking?

by Neal McNamara
Who's checking?

In light of Tina Houghton, it seems board appointments are going unchecked in Lansing


Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero says his office doesn’t have the time to check on whether his nominees to city boards meet qualifications such as having paid their property taxes.


"I don't know how we'd have the wherewithal to do that," Bernero said.


The mayor was reacting to questions about the appointment of City Councilwoman-elect Tina Houghton to the city Parks Board in 2007 in apparent violation of the City Charter because she was delinquent on property taxes.


According to the City Charter, appointees to city boards must be a registered voters, residents for at least one year prior to appointment, not have committed a felony or election law violation in the past 20 years, and must not be in debt to the city. These qualifications appear at the top of the application form.


The City Charter does not specifically spell out who is supposed to check the veracity of application forms, except that the mayor’s office is charged with making appointments with the “advice and consent” of the City Council. City Clerk Chris Swope has said that his office has nothing to do with appointments.


When asked whether his office vets potential appointees, Bernero said his office interviews candidates, but he didn’t know where his office would get the resources to conduct the checks.


When asked what the point of the charter guidelines are if no one’s checking, Bernero said that qualifications of his nominees have not been an issue in four years.


“I’ve had bigger fish to fry,” he said. Houghton was appointed to the Parks Board in November 2007 when she had not paid her summer taxes for that year. Ingham County records show that Houghton did not pay her 2007 taxes until May 2008. The application a person fills out when applying for an appointment states that, as a qualification, one must not be indebted to any city agency.


Randy Hannan, Bernero’s deputy chief of staff, said that no efforts were being made to remove Houghton from the Parks Board, since she will have to step down in a month to take her seat on Council, anyway.


When Houghton filed to run for the Council in May, she signed a sworn affidavit that she met the qualifications of candidacy, including not being in debt to the city.


However, at the time she still owed the $1,919 in delinquent city property taxes for 2008, In accordance with state law, all late property taxes owed to the city are turned over to the county for collection on March 1 of each year. The county then borrows money to pay the city and tries to collect the taxes.


Last week, her 2008 taxes were paid in cash, Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing said. On Wednesday,  Houghton paid $1,397 in city taxes for 2009, also in cash.


When Houghton was elected on Nov. 4, she was late on those city taxes.


On Monday night, about 15 people protested her candidacy and election outside of City Hall.


“Why didn’t the city clerk, city attorney and the assessor know about her taxes?” read a sign held by Joe Garza.


“If she lied, I don’t think she should get the job,” Garza said.


Houghton has been unavailable for comment since City Pulse reported her tax delinquency three weeks ago. At the time, she said she had “got in over our heads.”


The question on many people’s minds is whether Houghton lied on the affidavit, and whether she should have been allowed to run in the first place. Swope has said that he does not, as a matter of routine, check the validity of affidavits.


City Attorney Brig Smith holds that when Houghton signed the affidavit in May, she was not in default to the city.


Smith said that at the time Houghton executed the affidavit, her financial obligations for property taxes had been transferred to the county. The only way Houghton could be prevented from taking office, Smith said, would be if she did not pay her city taxes by the time she is to take office, which is Jan. 1.


“A ‘failure to satisfy’ an obligation ‘to the city’ would constitute a ‘default’ under the (City Charter) if the default exists at the time the candidate takes office,” Smith said.


However, according to an opinion drafted in 1995 by former assistant city attorney Melvin McWilliams, the city’s definition of “default” is “the failure to do something required by duty or law, and includes the failure to satisfy financial obligations to the city … .”


City Treasurer Antonia Kraus, whose office issues tax bills and receives tax payments up until March 1, said that is essentially impossible for a person to be in default to the city for property taxes because only the county can collect delinquent property taxes.


Also at issue is a 1999 case in which Belinda Fitzpatrick sued the city to force then City Clerk Marilynn Slade to put her name on the ballot. Slade refused to put Fitzpatrick on the ballot because she had not paid her property taxes, even though, at the time, the taxes had been passed over to the county. Assistant City Attorney Billie O’Berry argued Slade’s side in the case, saying that property taxes are “… an obligation on real property located in the city of Lansing and it is an obligation to the city of Lansing from which they arise.”


In a hearing over the case, former Circuit Judge Carolyn Stell agreed with the city’s argument.


When asked why the city is arguing differently now, Smith said that O’Berry was charged with defending Slade's actions in keeping Fitzpatrick off the ballot.


Bernero said that he did not know about Houghton’s tax situation, either during this election, or when he nominated her to the Parks Board.


“The reality is, Brian (Houghton) and Tina are dedicated and wonderful people who are having typical struggles,” Bernero said.


— Neal McNamara

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