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.