Nov. 18 2009 12:00 AM

A decade-old court hearing raises new questions about whether Tina Houghton was eligible to run for the Lansing City Council

Ten years ago, an Ingham County Circuit judge said in a hearing that a would-be candidate for Lansing City Council was ineligible to be on the ballot because she was delinquent on property taxes.

The case is strikingly similar to that of Tina Houghton, who was permitted to run for City Council this year even though she was delinquent on taxes. Houghton beat incumbent Sandy Allen in the Second Ward on Nov. 4.

In a 1999 hearing, Judge Carolyn Stell said that Belinda Fitzpatrick was ineligible to run for City Council because she was late on her taxes. Like Houghton, Fitzpatrick’s taxes had been turned over to the county for collection.

“A person who has delinquent property taxes is in default to the city,” Stell said at the hearing, which does not hold the same weight as a ruling or a court order.

Stell’s sentiments seem to contradict the view of City Attorney Brigham Smith, who said that since Houghton’s taxes were turned over to the county when she registered in May to become a candidate, she did not owe back taxes to Lansing. On March 1 of each year, back city taxes from the previous year are turned over to Ingham County for collection.

When Fitzpatrick tried to file to run on May 10, 1999, it was more than two months after her unpaid city property taxes were turned over to the county for collection.

Houghton has not paid $3,317.74 in taxes, combined, from 2008 and this year’s summer taxes, which were due on Aug. 31. The 2008 taxes had already been turned over to the county for collection when Houghton filed to run for Council, but the 2009 taxes were not yet due.

When asked last week whether Houghton had been eligible to run for office, Smith said that the “longstanding opinion of this office is that being in default does not prevent a candidate from running or winning … .”

However, the affidavit that a candidate signs when taking office asks for an affirmative or negative response to the statement, “I am not in default at the time I am executing this affidavit on any of my financial obligations to the city including, but not limited to, property taxes, income taxes, special assessments and/or parking tickets, or other obligations.”

In a video tape of a court hearing in Fitzpatrick’s case, a copy of which Fitzgerald allowed a City Pulse reporter to view, Fitzgerald argues the same position as the city is taking now in regard to Houghton — that because Ingham County becomes a collection agency for property taxes after March 1 for any unpaid taxes from the previous year that a candidate seeking to run for office in May is actually in default to the county.

Arguing on behalf of the city in 1999 was Billie O’Berry, who is still an assistant city attorney. In her arguments against Fitzpatrick, O’Berry argues that even after March 1, a candidate would still be in debt to the city.

“It’s 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,” O’Berry told Stell, speaking about property taxes.

O’Berry goes on to say that Fitzpatrick did not cure her debt before filing to run for office, and therefore should not be on the ballot.

Smith said that O’Berry was charged with upholding then Lansing City Clerk Marilyn Slade’s actions in keeping Fitzpatrick off the ballot, which doesn’t necessarily reflect his office’s current view of language in the City Charter.

Stell, in denying Fitzpatrick’s suit to be on the ballot, relied in part on a case out of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Michigan in the matter of Corrigan v. City of Newaygo. In that case, Judge Robert Holmes Bell upheld that a city clerk in Newaygo had acted properly in keeping two candidates off the ballot because they owed property taxes.

Slade said that she would regularly check whether candidates who filed for office were behind on property taxes, had criminal records, or owed any other debt to the city. Slade, who now lives in Arizona, started doing this after she was defeated in an election by a woman who it turned out had unpaid taxes and never took office.

“The county collects (late taxes), but who gets the revenue? The city,” Slade said. “When I was there, that was made pretty clear to me. I suppose everyone can have a different opinion.”

City Clerk Chris Swope said that he was unaware of Slade’s past practice in checking all of the candidates who filed for office against their qualifications according to the City Charter.

“We do perform that process when there’s a Council vacancy and when Council is going to be making an appointment,” Swope said. “When we’re in that type of situation, there isn’t the public and opposing candidates with the ability to make that scrutiny.”

When asked if he would still have allowed Houghton to run for office if he had found out in May that she owed taxes, he agreed with Smith’s interpretation that the City Charter does not preclude someone from running for office.

Also at issue is whether Houghton was eligible to serve on the city’s Parks Board. On Oct. 31, 2007, Houghton filled out an application to become a member of the Parks Board and was confirmed by the City Council in December of that year. However, according to Ingham County records, Houghton’s 2007 property taxes went unpaid until May 2008. At the top of the application form for membership on a city board is the statement, “The charter prohibits appointees who are indebted to any city agency for any judgments, fees, parking tickets, assessments, unpaid taxes, or any other monies due to the City.”

Swope said that his office doe not have any part in board appointments, and that the mayor makes appointments, which are approved by the Council. Smith said that the matter would probably have to be cleared up before the next Parks Board meeting, but he also said that he would have to find out whether Houghton understood she was in default when she filled out the application.

Houghton did not return a call seeking comment, and Randy Hannan, Mayor Virg Bernero’s deputy chief of staff, did not return a call asking whether the mayor knew about Houghton’s back taxes either during this election or when she was appointed to the Parks Board.