City Charter reform needed to plug Houghton loopholes
|By Berl Schwartz|
As scoundrels go, Tina Houghton is small potatoes. She’s no James Michael Curley, who was elected a Boston alderman while in jail for fraud and had to take a break as mayor of that city to serve time in the federal pen, again for fraud.
But she’s still a fraud, albeit a small-time, small-town one.
Here’s what she did: She filled out an application for the Lansing Parks Board in 2007 that claimed she owed the city nothing when in fact she was delinquent on her taxes. Getting away with that, she signed an affidavit — a sworn, notarized statement — when she filed for City Council in May that said the same thing, when she was again delinquent on her taxes. The City Charter says that’s a disqualifier.
Asked about it, she offered up a spin job that must have made her political guru, Virg Bernero, the governor-mulling mayor, proud: Her family “had got in over our heads,” like many other Lansing residents, and experiencing it will only make her a better public servant.
In fact, the Houghtons have been over their heads so often it’s surprising they aren’t breathing through gills. Five times in this decade the Houghtons have been delinquent on their city property taxes. With that record, at least she didn’t have the disingenuousness to claim she didn’t know she was a tax delinquent.
But she did claim she’d never been one before — when in fact the Houghtons had been delinquent three times before in the same decade, according to public records. So this Councilwoman-elect is coming into office with a demonstrated disrespect not just for civic duty but the truth.
Now, what does this record get her? Public officials coming up with loopholes and excuses on her behalf.
The city clerk, Chris Swope, says it wasn’t his job to check on whether the affidavit she submitted to his office was truthful. Moreover, he agrees with City Attorney Brig Smith’s interpretation of the City Charter that just because Houghton owed money doesn’t preclude her from running or winning.
Smith says that’s the “longstanding opinion” of his office. Longstanding is apparently something less than 10 years ago. Thats when Belinda Fitzpatrick was in exactly the same situation as Houghton, which was that she was so overdue on her taxes that they’d been turned over to the county. At the time, Assistant City Attorney Billie O’Berry (still on the job) argued in court that Fitzpatrick’s taxes still remained a debt to the city. Now Smith says the opposite about Houghton, who just happens to be the candidate of the same mayor who nominated him.
The case 10 years ago arose because then City Clerk Marilyn Slade routinely checked on the veracity of candidate affidavits. Unlike Swope, she chose to look at the Charter’s silence on whose duty it is as a chance to serve the public good.
Uncharacteristically, Bernero has also chosen not to be pro-active. About his nominees, he says his office is too busy to check on qualifications. Says Bernero, “I’ve had bigger fish to fry.”
Yes, it’s small fish compared to the budget, public safety, development, and so on, but it’s still a fish. The fish should be compelled to resign from the Parks Board. Even though she has only a month to go, it would be an appropriate gesture.
The fish, meanwhile, has clammed up. She hasn’t been contrite — her explanation proffered no awareness of impropriety. And since her interview when City Pulse first reported the story on Nov. 11, she has refused to take questions.
We don’t relish having a new City Council member who thinks the way to deal with the press and public is to ignore them when the subject is unpleasant. A better model is not to leave the room till all questions are answered. The Lansing State Journal, which endorsed her as did City Pulse, has called on her to resign. We’re not quite there — Bernero still needs her vote to keep moving the city forward — but we’re very wary of her.
Meanwhile, reform is needed. The City Charter needs to say whose responsibility it is to check on the qualifications of mayoral nominees. It needs to say that it’s the clerk’s job to check on candidates. It needs to close the loophole that Smith is letting Houghton jump through.
Somebody on the Council needs to introduce the changes — let’s call them Houghton’s Law — to get the ball rolling. Hey, how about that new member from the Second Ward?