Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s anti-poverty think tank, where she brings a strong commitment to social justice, equity and democracy. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-chief of the Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”
― Thomas Paine
By Tina M. Patterson, Esq
This philosophy espoused by 18th century statesman Thomas Pain continues to resonate and remain more relevant than ever in the 21st century, in the year 2020, the second decade of the second millennium. The delivery of Detroit’s State of the City address last night was a fervent reminder of the need to meet the failure of public accountability with the keenest scrutiny possible. No leadership or authority figure can go unscathed for actions that lead to harmful consequences under their charge. And certainly, this basic principle acutely applies to publicly elected officials, who possess an even higher standard of care with their duty to uphold the public trust.
Unfortunately, this is a principle Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has failed to impart throughout his administration and his time in office. His arrogant, insincere, and inexcusable comments last night about the biggest economic scandal facing Detroit demonstrate just how far this mayor is willing to push the bounds of the reality of suffering in the city he is tasked with leading, just to excuse accountability and cover for his own failures.
In last night’s State of the City address, Duggan failed to explicitly acknowledge the existence of the $600 million over-taxation of Detroit homeowners as first reported by the Detroit News in January. He never once specifically mentioned the report, the unconscionable and undisputed $600 million amount estimated to have been taken wrongfully by the city, or any negative ramifications stemming from this egregious government malfeasance.
What Duggan presented instead was an appalling attitude, abhorrent lack of concern for the wrongdoing perpetrated by the city government, and worst of all, absolute arrogance in pretending his administration had no role in the wrongdoing. This is despite evidence to the contrary and a glaring admission from his own chief financial officer, Dave Massaron, that the city had indeed wronged a lot of people post-bankruptcy, which exclusively lies within the Duggan administration’s jurisdiction.
Not only did Mayor Duggan fail to specifically mention the prominently known over-taxation report, he toyed with the issue of over-assessments in general, stating that the issue was nothing new, as if it was a loosely kept secret that had no significant socioeconomic impact on the lives of thousands of Detroit residents.
Worst of all, throughout his light-hearted discussion of over-assessed property taxes on Detroit homeowners, some of whom lost their homes through foreclosure due to this massive oversight, Mayor Duggan failed to take any responsibility for the role his administration had in the years of over-assessment he so nonchalantly claimed were no secret. Instead, Duggan, the first white mayor in 40 years, stated, while smiling, that assessments were something that plagued the city for years, before shamefully shifting the blame of over-assessments to the previous administration under former Mayor Dave Bing.
On multiple occasions, Duggan exclusively referenced the 2010, 2011, and 2012 tax assessment periods as the dates in which the over assessments occurred. However, the Detroit News affirmatively reported that Detroit homeowners were over assessed from 2010 through 2016, which indisputably included three years of over-assessment under Duggan’s watch. This fact was accepted by Duggan’s administration upon initial reporting, yet not once in the entirety of his State of the City address did Duggan acknowledge an inkling of responsibility for the over assessments that occurred under his watch in from 2014-2016. In fact, he spoke as if the years 2014, 2015, and 2016 never existed. Apparently, we, the listening audience and Detroit tax payers, were supposed to go along with this manufactured gap in time to appease Duggan’s need to avoid accountability in this crisis.
Rather than accept any or even admit any responsibility for wrongfully collecting taxes from Detroit homeowners, Duggan unashamedly blamed the previous black mayor for the current over-assessment crisis. His complete failure to acknowledge any role in what has become a modern-day poster-child for economic disparity and flagrant breach of public trust was utterly disgraceful and completely disingenuous.
Furthermore, Duggan blatantly contradicted himself when it came to his answers on solutions to the problem.
First, he stated that the Bing administration offered the appeal process as a solution to the over-assessment, to which Duggan responded that the over-assessed, “shouldn’t have to appeal.” For once, Duggan is correct. However, the problem is Duggan gave the same exact response when the report of the $600 million over-taxation first broke in The Detroit News. When initially asked to respond to the crisis, Duggan arrogantly and callously referred to the appeals process as the only means for recovery, and then blamed those who failed to take this route, stating:
“Folks had a process by which they could appeal it. Those years are closed. I don’t know any lawful way to go back and say to all the taxpayers of the city who did follow the process, ‘We’re going to raise your taxes to pay the taxes for people who didn’t,” Duggan said.
Second, Duggan rather conspicuously admitted that he had no solutions to returning the money wrongfully taken from Detroit homeowners and insisted that nothing could be done since the money had already been spent. Instead, he disguised a gallant effort to walk away from corrective action because the money had been allocated on what he tried to frame as noble public necessities, such as public safety, county, and public school expenditures.
Yet, where Duggan’s argument falls flat is that tax payer dollars support funding of those public necessities regardless, and as a public steward of tax payer dollars, he is responsible for ensuring homeowners have been properly assessed the correct amounts owed before allocating those funds to such publicly funded initiatives. The dollars Duggan claims are already spent and impossible to recover were never supposed to be collected in the first place. In keeping with Duggan’s penchant for deferring to existing law to excuse corrective political action and being a lawyer himself, he must understand that legally, no public entity is entitled to money that does not belong to it. In fact, no individual or organization is entitled to money that does not belong to them. This honestly does not even require a law degree to interpret. It’s a basic principle of fairness and common sense.
Finally, Duggan’s insistence that nothing can be done to recover the funds wrongfully taken from homeowners under his watch is another contradiction from his recent comments made in response to mounting and intense public pressure surrounding this issue. Just hours before The PuLSE Institute launched our forum series titled “The $600 Million Scandal” last month, Duggan’s spokesman told the Detroit News he had “a whole team of people from his administration looking at possibilities” and that the city was looking at “ways to help individuals who were overtaxed during those years.” These contradictory responses shed light on two truths: first, that Duggan is being dishonest about what can be done to correct the city’s massive wrongdoing; and second, that it is entirely possible to provide relief to those who were wrongfully over-taxed due to this massive failure of responsible government.
“It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts.” -Mahatma Gandhi
In removing himself from any responsibility or accountability for this massive economic crisis, Mayor Duggan has once again proven himself to be an authority figure that cannot be trusted with the common good of the people, because he refuses to acknowledge his own actions in harming those he is duty bound to serve.
Rather than presenting a sophisticated display of authentic and solution-oriented leadership in action, Duggan shamefully demonstrated an abysmal display of scapegoating accountability, the likes of which can only be compared to President Donald Trump blaming any ounce of political failure on the previous administration of former President Barack Obama.
Regardless of Duggan’s litany of excuses as to why he cannot act to repay what the city was not entitled to collect, the bottom line is that the city was wrong in its actions. It must now be held accountable for those actions, and as a matter of basic fairness, it must restore everything wrongfully taken from its residents. And no law transcends the universal principle of justice, but instead seeks to fulfill this common shared value. Still, when the law fails in this sacred intent, the burdened are not without recourse. As Dr. Martin Luther King wisely noted, in these situations, morality calls for us to leave the realm of constitutional rights, and enter the arena of human rights.
That is where we find ourselves in this day and age in Detroit. Mayor Duggan, should realize by now that this issue is not going to go away because he wants it to, no matter how badly he wants it to, and no matter how hard he attempts to persuade us that the issue cannot be solved or simply doesn’t exist. A true leader never fails to hold himself or herself accountable first and foremost for their own actions before seeking justifiable solutions.
Mayor Duggan is not exempt from this basic definition of leadership, and Detroit citizens every day must remind him with their demands for accountability and full restoration of the wrongful and immoral $600 million over-taxation of their tax dollars. In the interest of justice, nothing less will suffice.