At least four current
    appointees to boards and commissions in the city of Lansing have
    apparently violated requirements in the city charter for serving on a
    board, a joint City Pulse/WLNS Channel 6 investigation has found.


    And
    in response to issues with alleged charter violations, the
    administration of Mayor Virg Bernero — and including the city clerk,
    treasurer, and city attorney — is conducting an internal investigation
    of all of the hundreds of appointees in the city to ensure that they
    meet the charter’s requirements.


    The
    controversy over Second Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton, who
    registered, ran and was elected to office while owing property taxes
    and who was appointed to the city Parks Board while owing property
    taxes, revealed an apparent lack of a system in Lansing city government
    for checking the qualifications of elective and appointed officials.
    When asked at the time, Bernero said he had “bigger fish to fry” than
    watch over the qualifications of every appointee.


    Randy
    Hannan, Bernero’s deputy chief of staff, said that until recently the
    administration relied on appointees to report whether they violated the
    charter’s requirements. Hannan said that there was no reason not to
    trust citizens interested in volunteering their time to work in
    government.


    “Why wouldn’t we?” Hannan said when asked about self-reporting. “These are people who are everyday folks in the community. We would have no reason to doubt people.”


    When
    Houghton was appointed to the Parks Board in November 2007, she had not
    paid her taxes due for the summer. Ingham County records showed that
    she did not pay those taxes until May 2008.




    Alleged default


    The charter requires
    appointees to be city residents without felony convictions or election
    law violations for the last 20 years and not to owe the city money.
    City Pulse and WLNS-TV checked all current appointees to the 22 Lansing
    boards and commissions under the purview of the City Charter to
    determine if any had lapsed in property tax payments during their term,
    had ever been convicted of a felony or were not city residents.


    The list of
    appointees to every board and commission was obtained from the Lansing
    City Clerk’s office. The date of each appointee’s most recent
    reappointment was checked using Lansing City Council meeting minutes,
    which, in some cases, also provided an appointee’s address. Appointees’
    names were checked against property tax records kept by the city of
    Lansing and Ingham County. Felony records were checked using the state
    of Michigan’s Offender Tracking Information System, and residency was
    checked using the Ingham County Clerk’s voter registration database.


    Almost all appointees met every qualification set forth in the charter. But some did not.


    The investigation found these apparent current or past violations:



    Board of Police Commissioners Chairwoman Maria Olivia Mejorado was
    delinquent in paying $1,889.37 in summer and winter property taxes from
    2009 on her house at 1200 Climax St. in Lansing. Mejorado was
    reappointed to the board in June 2009. Mejorado was unable to be
    reached despite numerous phone calls and several visits to her home.



    Income Tax Board of Review member Gloria Nostrant owes summer 2009
    taxes on three properties she is listed as owning. Nostrant had not
    paid $946.28 on a home at 1135 Cleveland St., $966.07 for a home at
    1137 Cleveland St., and $1614.90 on a business at 1240 E. Grand River
    Ave. According to City Council meeting minutes, Nostrant was
    reappointed in June 2009.


    Nostrant
    said Monday that her daughter was supposed to pay the property taxes on
    Saturday. Nostrant said that she been in Florida off and on recently
    dealing with a family health issue, which is why she left her daughter
    to pay the taxes. Nostrant said that realized that she’s still a member
    of the Income Tax Board of Review, but said that she can’t remember
    attending a meeting in about 10 years.


    “I should really just call and get my name taken off the list,” she said.



    Board of Zoning Appeals member Robert Burgess was found to have been
    late paying $403.72 in 2008 winter taxes on a home at 6253 Coulson
    Court. Burgess was appointed to the board in December 2002.


    Burgess
    said that the property taxes that he owed on his Coulson Court home
    were paid once he realized that they were late. Burgess said that he
    had moved out of his house and lost his principal residence exemption
    and did not realize that the taxes would go up.


    “I got the (late) notice and it was paid right away,” Burgess said. “As far as I know, it was paid.”


    According to Ingham County Records, the outstanding taxes were paid in June 2009.


    Additional
    apparent violations of the charter include Linda Sims, a police
    commissioner, who had not paid about $20 in summer 2009 personal
    property taxes for her business, S and S Services, which were due at
    the end of August. Sims did not wish to comment on the late taxes, but
    told a reporter that she would pay them immediately — according to city
    of Lansing records, she paid the taxes on Feb. 19.


    Mark
    Hiaeshutter and Julie Teed were listed as members of the Demolition
    Board and the Traffic Board, respectively, but have since moved from
    Lansing and have become registered voters in other municipalities.
    However, both Hiaeshutter and Teed told reporters that they had
    resigned. In fact, both stated that they knew the requirements set
    forth in the charter, which is why they resigned from their respective
    boards. Teed said that she resigned over one year ago, and Hiaeshutter
    said he resigned in October. Their names, however, still appear on the
    city’s list of members of boards and commissions.


    A
    question of residency came as a result of a property record found for
    Ethics Board member Edwar Zeineh. A property listed as being owned by
    Zeineh at 609 Isbell St. lists his address as being in East Lansing.
    According to Ingham County records, Zeineh is a registered voter in
    Lansing, but he did not return calls seeking comment on why he is
    listed as living in East Lansing. A woman at the East Lansing home told
    reporters that Zeineh had not lived there for some time, and a man at a
    home owned by Zeineh on Tecumseh River Drive confirmed that he was
    living there.


    Zeineh
    owns two other properties in Lansing — one on Jones Street and the
    Tecumseh River Drive home — both of which list his address as being on
    Tecumseh River Drive.


    However,
    Zeineh resigned from the Ethics Board on Monday, telling the Lansing
    State Journal that he had done so for “personal reasons.”


    As a part of the
    process of checking appointed officials in Lansing, elected officials’
    qualifications were also checked, including the city clerk, mayor and
    all eight City Council members. None werefound to be lacking in qualifications according to the city charter.




    Boards help city run


    The
    city of Lansing has or is a part of 36 boards, commissions and
    authorities. On those governmental boards are over 200 citizens, city
    officials and experts appointed by the mayor or City Council. State
    statute governs some boards. Others operate outside the scope of
    Lansing city government like the Capital Area District Library board or
    the Potter Park Zoo board.


    The
    Lansing City Charter governs a majority of these boards. The charter,
    slaved over by a commission set up in 1975, and killed twice by voters
    before it was ratified in 1978, sets guidelines for the selection and
    qualifications for appointed and elected officials.


    The application form for boards and commissions spells out the requirements:


    — City residency for at least a year before appointment.



    No indebtedness to any city agency for “any judgments, fees, parking
    tickets, assessments, unpaid taxes or any monies due to the City.”


    — No felony convictions or election law violations or “violations of the public trust” in the last 20 years.


    The
    form says those qualifications are spelled out in the charter or
    ordinances. The form also says applicants must be registered voters,
    but City Attorney Brig Smith said the requirement will be removed from
    the form.




    The response


    The
    city administration, which appoints most, but not all, appointees to
    city boards and commissions, responded to questions over the
    qualifications of appointees by saying that it will conduct its own
    internal review of every appointee.


    City
    Attorney Brig Smith said that his office, in conjunction with the city
    clerk, treasurer and the mayor’s office, would aid in the investigation
    and anyone found in violation of charter qualifications would be given
    an opportunity to fix it.


    “The administration has redoubled its efforts,” Smith said.


    In
    case an appointee is discovered to owe property taxes to the city,
    Smith said a letter would be sent asking them to “cure the default” or
    resign.


    Smith said
    that his office has not yet contacted any appointees regarding default,
    but he could not speak for the mayor’s office.


    Hannan
    said that it was “late last year” that the administration decided to
    undertake a review or every appointed official, but he would not
    specifically say whether it was in relation to Houghton. Hannan said he
    did not know whether the investigation had produced any results. He
    said that Joe McDonald, a special assistant to Bernero, was conducting
    the investigation.


    “In instances where we find a situation that
    needs to be remedied, an individual will get a letter indicating that
    they need to take an action to resolve whatever the issue is,” Hannan
    said.


    At-Large
    Councilwoman Carol Wood said that she had asked for a review of all
    city appointees around the time questions were being raised about
    Houghton.


    “There needs to be at least a yearly way to look at that,” she said of appointees’ qualifications.


    Wood
    said that she had met recently with the City Clerk Chris Swope and
    Smith, who told her that the investigation was still being worked on.


    Hannan
    said that the results of the internal investigation would likely be
    compiled or tracked in some manner, but would not be handed out to the
    public. He did not know whether an internal investigation would be
    carried out on an annual basis.


    “I don’t think we’ll call any people out,” Hannan said.




    The questions of default


    A recent ruling by Attorney General Mike Cox is having an impact on how Lansing defines “default.”


    As
    the city of Port Huron was undergoing a charter revision, resident Ken
    Harris was worried that charter commission members were ignoring the
    issue of “default.” Harris had done a little research on the matter and
    found that Michigan’s Home Rule Cities Act — a 1909 state law, that, in
    part, lays down basic guidelines for how cities can
    construct their charters — requires that cities have a “default” clause
    in their charters. But even though it is in the Home Rule Cities Act,
    Harris could not find a definition. So, last summer, he asked his
    legislator, state Rep. John Espinoza, D-Port Huron, to find it for him.
    Espinoza sent the question to Attorney General Mike Cox, and on Feb.
    10, Cox’s decision was released.


    Cox
    ruled on a section of the home rule act that spells out the limitations
    of power for cities. Included in this section is a line that says a
    city cannot “make a contract with, or give an official position to, one
    who is in default to the city.” Cox goes on to rule that the term “in
    default” in the act means that “at the point in time the contract or
    appointment is to be made or given, the person has failed to meet a
    financial, contractual, or other obligation to the city after adequate
    notice of the obligation and an opportunity to cure it were provided to
    the person and the obligation is not the subject of a pending judicial
    or administrative hearing.”


    Smith
    has been the target of public outcry over his definition of default in
    relation to the Houghton matter. He says that Cox’s recent ruling
    bolsters the definition of “default.”


    “Indeed, to read the (Lansing City Charter) and
    Home Rule City Act otherwise would lead to potentially absurd results,”
    Smith said regarding Cox’s definition of “default.” “To use property
    taxes as an example, what if the payment is late by one day? What if it
    is later determined that additional taxes are owed? Both the office of
    the attorney general and the office of the city attorney read the Home
    Rule City Act and other charter language the same way, and that reading
    avoids potentially absurd results.”


    Smith
    said that the city was not officially adopting Cox’s ruling, but is
    persuaded by Cox’s definition of “in default” because the language
    appears both in the home rule act and in the Lansing City Charter.


    “There
    is no need to adopt the opinion in any formal way other than to use it
    as a resource in analyzing similar questions, to the extent that my
    office is persuaded by its reasoning,” he said.


    Other
    cities have language that is more explicit in their charters relating
    to default. In Jackson, the city charter states that a notice of
    default for an officeholder or appointee must be filed with the city
    clerk and verified by the city treasurer. The appointee or officeholder
    then has 30 days to cure the default. In Mason, a default applies not
    only to debts to the city, but also the county and the school district.
    In the case of Houghton, Smith said that she was allowed to run and win
    office because her default had passed over to Ingham County by the time
    she registered as a candidate. Mason also spells out that 30 days are
    given to cure a default.


    The
    issue of default has been such a debated topic that the Ann Arbor-based
    Michigan Municipal League, which lends help to cities undergoing
    charter revision, released a “one pager plus” report on default. The
    Municipal League created a sample resolution for villages under the
    General Law Village act to removed elective or appointed officers who
    are default either by not paying their taxes by the last day in
    February, or another kind of debt.


    Susan
    Hannah, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Indiana
    University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, has lent charter revision
    advice to the Municipal League, and says that the issue of default
    varies in its definition and usually applies to larger sums of money.


    Hannah
    said that some city charters are too old to be relevant, but said that
    Lansing’s 1978 charter is relatively new by comparison. When asked
    about Smith’s interpretation of the Cox ruling, and the fact that
    smaller amounts of money would be too absurd to consider default, she
    said that Lansing might be able to specify an amount that an appointed
    or elective official could owe before it meets the definition of
    “default.”

    “If people are unhappy, you could proposean amendment to the charter to specify that,” she said.

    A
    city attorney, she said, could interpret the charter any way he sees
    fit. The only recourse of a citizen who disagrees with the city
    attorney is to bring the matter to the court. The issue of Smith’s
    interpretation of the charter that Houghton was allowed to run and win
    office has been challenged twice in court and once before the city’s
    ethics board. The first case, brought by Lansing resident Robert Gray,
    was dismissed last year. Another suit brought by Lansing resident John
    Pollard is ongoing, though Smith has asked for it to be dismissed.
    Smith, in asking for Pollard’s suit to be dismissed, cited Cox’s recent
    definition of “default.”




    Normal public


    Tina
    Houghton does not remember specifically whether she was nominated to
    the Parks Board in 2007, or whether she applied. Further, she contends,
    she did not know at the time of her appointment that she was behind on
    her property taxes.


    “The citizens that want to be on boards are the normal public,” Houghton said. “They have struggles like everyone else.”


    But she still believes that appointees’ qualifications should be checked against the city charter.


    Houghton
    said she believes there should be a checklist for each appointee and
    perhaps a member of city government who makes sure that each
    qualification is met. Maybe, she said, the application form for
    appointees — which is available to download on the city’s Web site —
    should be made an affidavit. At the time she filled out her
    application, she said, no one explained to her the rules set forth by
    the charter.


    “I
    filled it out, and I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that my taxes
    might be behind,” she said. “At that point, I was just excited to
    serve.”


    But, if an appointee is found to be in default while serving, Houghton said, he should be given the chance to fix it.


    “If it had been brought to my attention, I would have (paid the taxes),” she said.


    Said
    Smith: “Any person identified as having an alleged default to the City
    will be contacted and given an opportunity to cure the default. The
    city is also considering various approaches to improve confirmation
    processes for the qualifications and eligibility of city officials in
    the future, including legislation, modifications to city policy, and
    revamping the application process for board appointees.”


    Wood,
    who is the longest serving member of Council, having been first elected
    in 1999, said that during the Hollister and Benavides administrations,
    a representative from the mayor’s administration would vet appointees
    and present their results to Council. She said that under the Bernero
    administration, there’s been the assumption that appointees’
    qualifications are being checked.


    “I guess shame on us as a Council for not checking that,” Wood said. “I would assume that (the administration) would check.”


    (City Pulse interns Brandon Kirby and Megan Murphy contributed reporting.)

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter