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GPW Truth: Council uses tricks to get treats?

Administrator says it's OK to spend residents' tax money to steer Headlee Override victory.

In what borders on a violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, the Grosse Pointe Woods city council spent $210, plus travel, salaries and other expenses to send one council member and two appointed, non-resident city administrators to a Lansing "workshop" where they were coached on how to use deception and trickery to hoodwink residents into passing a $1.2 million annual blank check Headlee Override tax increase.

If successful, the Woods' leadership's proposed 1.85 mill Headlee Override will raise residential property taxes an additional $1.2 million a year for 10 years - and probably longer - with nothing more than their customary fingers-crossed promise that the money will be spent for public safety or EMS services and not for increased wages, added vacation days and perks for a favored few employees and appointed commissioners.

In a separate proposal on the November 6 ballot, Woods' taxpayers also will be asked to approve an average 2.142 mill, $10 million-for-10 years dedicated general obligation bond to repair crumbling residential roads.

Between them, the two proposals take residents 4 mills above the state-mandated Headlee limit for Woods' tax burdens and represent $400 in additional taxes for each $100,000 of Woods residents' already high, city-assessed taxable values.

And get this: Don't look for the words "Headlee Override" anywhere on November's  stealth tax grab. Woods' Mayor Robert Novitke refuses to have the proposal bear that title because he fears that voters will understand what they're being asked to approve and will vote "No". So it's simply and misleadingly labelled, "Millage Proposal."

Among the trio of Woods' delegates to the March 29 " workshop" at the Michigan Municipal League's Lansing headquarters was Woods' City Clerk Lisa Hathaway, a non-resident city appointee, who showed up an hour after the start of the pro-tax-hike coaching session entitled "Millage Matters."

Ms. Hathaway belatedly joined non-resident City Administrator Alfred "Skip" Fincham and Council Member Art Bryant. And the trio was treated to a heavy-handed presentation by veteran PR flack Roger Martin, whose Lansing firm is paid big bucks to advise municipalities on how to raise taxes.

Among Martin's advice for how to dampen taxpayer opposition to exhorbitant ballot campaigns like the Woods' upcoming blank check Headlee Override and $10 million roads construction bond proposals, and I quote:

"Research the opposition. What are their strategies and tactics? Can you get a mole on the inside?"

"Mole" is another word for "spy," in case you're not James Bond fans. I'm sure Martin didn't have to tell our city officials that, however.

Another "Inside Tip" that Martin stressed: "You must create a problem before you solve it." The Woods' council is good enough at creating problems, thank you. And they always seem to want to "solve" them with taxpayers' money.

The most incredible piece of advice from Martin as I sat through his 90-minute pro tax increase lecture that March morning dealt with how the city's hired or volunteer Election Day "get out the vote" callers should bare-faced lie to any residents who indicate that they might oppose a tax increase.

Advised Martin: "Tell all the 'NO' voters that the election is in two weeks - yeah, that's right, two weeks!" (Like, the date's been a changed and the election's been postponed.) I assume that he thought that was funny.

There was plenty of other sleazy advice from Martin for Woods' Council member Bryant, City Administrator Fincham and City Clerk Hathaway to soak up that March morning in exchange for the $70-a-head that Woods' taxpayers shelled out to send them to the pro-tax "workshop."

This, of course, was plus salaries and travel expenses for Fincham and Hathaway, neither of whom lives in, or pays 10 cents in taxes to, Grosse Pointe Woods.

Interestingly, the Woods' council each year sends $5,700 of taxpayers' money to help support the Michigan Municipal League. Doesn't that make you Woods' taxpayers feel warm all over? We pay MML nearly 6 grand so they can coach our city officials on how to treat us like dumbells.

For the record, I attended the same "Millage Matters" workshop that day at my own expense. The MML charged me $120 as a "visitor." No discounts for the taxpayers who cough up the city's $5,700 annual membership dues.

Afterward I queried Council-appointed, non-resident City Administrator Fincham about the questionable legality of spending taxpayers' money to teach city officials how to use dirty tricks to pass ballot proposals that will raise his residents' taxes several million dollars. Fincham's response was that he believed that spending taxpayers money for this kind of sleazy workshop is "legal."

But is it? Permit me to quote the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, Section 1 of Act 31 of 2012 which provides, in part:

"It is the policy of this state that a public body shall maintain strict neutrality in each election and that a public body or a person acting on behalf of a public body shall not attempt to influence the outcome of an election held in the state. "

I'm no lawyer. But it sure looks like spending several hundred bucks of taxpayers' money for workshop fees, salaries and expenses to send two city officials who are on the clock - plus an elected official, Council Member Art Bryant - to a session where all three are coached on how to raise taxes just might be a violation of Michigan law.

The Woods' council has two lawyers among it's seven members - Mayor Bob Novitke and Council member Todd A. McConaghy. But they apparently agreed, at least tacitly, to engage in this kind of disgusting and deceptive practice at the expense of the taxpayers that they, like Council Member Bryant, are sworn to represent and protect.

Council member McConaghy's day job is an associate counsel of the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission. That's the watchdog group that calls Michigan lawyers to task when they fail to act properly in legal and public matters. McConaghy and Mayor Novitke both voted at a council meeting to send Council Members Bryant and Kevin Kettles to the Lansing workshop.

Somebody must have approved Fincham's and Clerk Hathaway's added attendance after the council vote. Ketels never got there.

Clerk Hathaway's sworn duty, incidentally, is to run honest, impartial elections, not to try to influence their outcomes. Why she was permitted to attend a meeting like this one at taxpayer expense is unexplainable.

Check the graph above regarding the Campaign Finance Act. What's it say? "It is the policy of this state that a public body shall maintain strict neutrality in each election..." They're not just talking elections for president, Congress, governor, legislators,  council etc.

They specify "each election." Maybe somebody should read it to the Woods' council and administration.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Michael June 09, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Pete you know what it takes to return this city to what it was when I moved here and before this mayor for life and revolving group of self serving yes men took over. Plesae, please Pete run for Mayor! A question; what does it take to put an item on the ballot to remove council pay and include retroactive term limits for what has quickly shadowed all others as the worst government on the east side.
Lisa Pinkos Howle June 10, 2012 at 12:47 AM
I'm with you Michael. Thanks to Pete for posting the truth.
Dan Schulte June 10, 2012 at 04:01 AM
Pete, Thanks for bringing this important issue to light. Hopefully every resident in every city will read this account. I am disappointed that the MML would abandon their neutral position to promote dishonesty and encourage elected officials to deceive their own constituents. This organization needs to be held fully accountable for its actions. Any council member who subscribes to these tactics is no public servant.
terry e moreno June 10, 2012 at 12:44 PM
I would like to know who is paying Roger Martins salary or fees for showing city officials how to decieve the citizens of Michigan they are supposed to be serving? These appointees that have no investments or concern for our city, other than to collect a paycheck & then go to their homes in the suburbs, should be removed from office. The persons who appointed them should be removed or voted out also. I can only hope that some legal action can be taken against the officials that approved sending these officials to this seminar.
Robert Lee June 10, 2012 at 01:23 PM
This kind of nefarious activity by Woods civic officials that Mr. Waldmeir documents is almost as outrageous as Shores ex-mayor James Cooper and ex-city manager Brian Vick having city attorney Mark McInerney craft a secrecy agreement to keep the hundreds of thousands of dollars in Grosse Pointe Yacht Club water over billing out of the public eye during two key city elections. Their action also kept that little problem out of the eyes of state Treasury officials who had the city under fiscal watch. Pete Waldmeir is right on that legal action should be taken when civic officials abuse the public trust and interfere with the sanctity of our elections. But don't hold your breath looking for help from state elections officials. When two Shores candidates complained about the city paying attorney McInerney to review their campaign literature, elections officials in the Michigan Department of State just blew them off. Best way to get rid of the bums is for citizens to take matters in to their own hands, and use the power voters have under state law to recall the offenders. State officials will just look the other way when their political cronies engage in such unacceptable behavior.
Joseph Sucher June 10, 2012 at 03:22 PM
We enjoy living in an above average community. Our friends and neighbors have high levels of educational credentials. Most work at above average levels of professional responsibilities. And we believe, or claim to believe, in the rule of law. So what has led to the laizze-faire attitude when it comes to elected and appointed officials following both the letter and …”gasp”…. the intent of the law? Does anybody care anymore? This is reportedly a problem at the municipal, county, state and federal levels of government. For example, do you care if federal appointments are illegally made? Is it okay for officials to lie to Congress? Or worse.... to “we the people.” I guess that's just the way it is. Here at home Pete can point things out. He’s been doing that for years, and he’s very good at it. However it's the job of the people to hold officials accountable.......... or not.
Glenn Brown June 10, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Thanks, Pete, for an excellent account of the most recent and egregious example of how the Mayor and Council squander taxpayer money in the Woods. This one takes the cake with taxpayer money not just being wasted, but being used to trick the very taxpayers. Outrageous! Thanks, too, for spending your time and money to "lift the rock" and inform us of the unsavory things crawling around under it. Glenn Brown
Pete Waldmeir, GP Woods June 10, 2012 at 10:02 PM
I'll tell you who's paying Roger Martin's firm. You are. Your tax money goes to pay for the city's $5,700-a-year membership in the Michigan Municipal League. The MML hires seminar presenters like Martin to coach Michigan municipalities on how to win unpopular tax increases and millage elections, among other things. As for the high-salaried non-resident appointees that the council approved to take his course and then come back and work his lessons into the Headlee Override tax raise campaign, you paid not only their salaries for a day in Lansing, you also paid their expenses to-and-from plus their other perks and pensions etc. And since you brought up the Woods' non-resident appointees - City Clerk Lisa Hathaway, City Administrator Alfred (Skip) Fincham, City attorneys Don and Charles (Chip) Berschback , Treasurer/Controller Dee Ann Irby and Assessor Ginger Soles - not one lives in or pays any taxes to Grosse Pointe Woods. But that's not really unusual. Get this: Roughly 85 to 90 per cent of Woods hourly-rated union and non-union employees including a large majority of the public safety officers and their director, Andrew Pazuchowski, do not live in the Woods or pay taxes here. There is no residency rule any more - if there ever was one here.
Harlan Hatcher June 11, 2012 at 01:10 AM
Removing council pay while allowing the source of trouble to remain in office is a lot like clipping off the head of the dandelion without removing the root isn't it? Why not do something that will actually improve the situation?
Chris K June 11, 2012 at 02:40 AM
Attention tax payers! You too can learn the tricks of the trade. Follow the link below and for a mere $60, a non-member community registration can be purchased for a one hour webinar offered by Roger Martin titled Making Millages Move. Doesn't the seminar description inspire you? ...More and more Michigan communities have to go to their local voters to seek tax increases to fund essential services, such as police and fire safety. And guess what? Voters are overwhelmingly saying YES! In recent local elections, about 80 percent of millage requests were approved by voters in Michigan communities. If they can do it, so can you. Learn how to run a successful millage campaign in your community from a consultant who can teach you how. Upon completion of this program attendees will be able to: 1. Discuss different ways to engage their citizens in the process. 2. Identify what has worked and what hasn't worked in others' campaigns. 3. Write messages that will increase the chances of passing the ballot question. Let's hope that the voters here in GPW, overwhelmingly say "NO" to the Headlee Override http://www.mml.org/IMISPUBLIC/Core/Events/eventdetails.aspx?iKey=12F-02&TemplateType=A
David Hensley June 11, 2012 at 12:02 PM
Thanks Mr. Waldmeir! I appreciate the info and effort. I hope the efforts to defeat these millages are successful.
Joseph Sucher June 11, 2012 at 02:39 PM
I repeat, voters are being tricked to think they must pass increased millages and perhaps Headlee overrides to fund essential services. If essential services are fully funded first then the additional dollars you pay by passing millage increases will be used to fund non-essential services. Do you really want to pass tax increases to fund the following: The City Volunteer Party at a private club serving shrimp and having an open bar, Salaries for elected officials, Maintaining two City Clerks while other Pointes have less than one full time Clerks. Outrageous legal costs when compared to other Pointes Allowing staff to perform duties as office holders in professional organizations on City time. Fully paid health insurance benefits for part time/contract staff with the addition of vision care coverage reportedly being recommended. These are a few examples of non essential services that increased taxes will support. Essential services need not be touched...... as claimed. Don't be tricked. Call your elected officials and demand they cut non essential services out of the budget scheduled to take effect July 1st.
Jane Elizabeth Brown June 11, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Thank you Pete. However, noting surprises me anymore about the way the Novitke machine operates. I worked there and experienced it first hand. Apparently the City Clerk has forgotten that she took an Oath of Office. It was inappropriate that she attended the "workshop" in the first place. Secondly, it burns me that taxpayers continue to pay for their shady road trips. Isn't it interesting that Mayor Novitke and Councilman Bryant recently (at a Compensation and Evaluation meeting where none of the residents attended) gave Administrator Finchem, Clerk Hathaway and Controller Irby an additional week paid vacation and gave Don Berschback, City Attorney Optical coverage. Novitke certainly takes good care of his stormtroopers at our expense. Let's hope their new assault on the taxpayers is a failure.
Chris K June 11, 2012 at 10:34 PM
WHAT? Jane, can you give the date when this occurred? Has it been since they "passed" the bloated budget? Like last week or the week before? I note there is another compensation meeting this evening! Wonder what sorts of favors will be passed out!
Jane Elizabeth Brown June 11, 2012 at 11:14 PM
http://www.gpwmi.us/Meetings/Agendas/Committees/CompensationEvaluation/2012/cea_2012-06-04.pdf Chris, here is the link to the minutes of the meeting. While residents attended the packed Council meeting about the budget and suggested ways to cut costs at City Hall the magnificent 7 sat up there knowing that they had just given another weeks vacation to three of their own and optical to the City Attorney who has a private practice. You couldn't make this stuff up.
Jane Elizabeth Brown June 11, 2012 at 11:23 PM
It is illegal to use taxpayers dollars to provide meals to precinct inspectors that are already compensated very well for working at the polls on Election Day. Clerk Hathaway does it anyway. Just another example of how they spend our dollars. Just think what what they are capable of doing if they are handed a blank check in November.
Chris K June 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Thank you Jane. I have cut and paste the minutes from the link you provided for the ease of the voters to read exactly what happened. As the Council is telling the voters they need more money from the taxpayers they are doling it out to their employees. WOW! You are right you can't make this stuff up! The meeting involved discussions on final issues of Compensation and evaluations. Motion by McConaghy, second by Novitke, to give five more days vacation to the City Administrator, the Treasurer/Comptroller and the City Clerk, and to provide the City Attorney with vision care at a cost of $140. Motion carried by the following vote: Yes: Novitke, Bryant, McConaghy No: None Absent: None Motion by Novitke, seconded by McConaghy, that the meeting of the Compensation and Evaluation Committee be adjourned at 9:25pm. Passed unanimously. Respectfully submitted by Arthur W. Bryant
Jane Elizabeth Brown June 12, 2012 at 12:06 AM
"Vision care at a cost of $140" Answer this: $140 PER WHAT? They make it sound like they are paying just $140 dollars for his vision care. Is it yearly? Monthly? Weekly? What is the bottom line? Just how much are the taxpayers of Grosse Pointe Woods paying for the vision care of the City Attorney who has his own private law practice? Why were the employees at City Hall asked to take pay cuts and make concessions if they are not leading by example? Shameful.....

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