resident Charles Leahy has made it his mission to improve public access to Board of Review hearings—the annual process in which homeowners can seek tax relief for a variety of reasons.
Ultimately the decisions impact each of the cities fiscal budgets because any reductions the Board of Review approve reduce the amount of income for that particular city.
Leahy has been attending hearings since 2010 throughout the Grosse Pointes and last year his complaints yielded changes in , where the hearings were previously held in a small conference room that was unwelcoming to the public. Now the Park is holding the hearings in a much larger space with more seating.
Leahy has filed a complaint with the State Tax Commission after being kicked out of a Board of Review hearing in Grosse Pointe Shores last week despite the attempted intervention of several legal and state officials.
He informed council Tuesday of his complaint and his frustration with how the Shores has handled the process. Last week, while he was allowed to attend the portion of the hearing in which the resident presented a case for tax relief, he was kicked out of the hearing when the board members began deliberations.
The situation escalated, leading him to file a police report with Director of Public Safety John Schulte. He intervened during the hearings after contacting the Shores attorney Mark McInerney, who explained Leahy should be allowed to attend the entire hearing.
Schulte advised the board but they refused to allow Leahy to attend, Schulte told Patch.
According to the police report, the Shores assessor Tim O'Donnell also advised the board that the entire meeting should be open and accessible to the public. An official from the Wayne County Equalization department also agreed with Leahy when he contacted the office and offered to have the board members call for the information.
Leahy has also sent his complaint and the police report to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, he told council Tuesday. The information he gave to the State Tax Commission has now been forwarded on to the Michigan Attorney General's office, he said, holding up an email he had received earlier in the day Tuesday.
He also highlighted his treatment by the Shores Board of Review last year, in which John Lizza publicly announced to council that he kicked Leahy out because he believes the hearings should be closed. He also laughed as he explained his thoughts about access, scoffing at the idea of allowing the public to attend.
Lizza, who chairs the Board of Review for the Shores, has been on it for years. He was among the board members hearing cases the day Leahy was kicked out of the meetings repeatedly.
As was Janice Pemberton, who told the council Tuesday, the board felt the deliberation portion of the meeting is allowed to be done in private as a jury does in the court system. She explained that the board members had received different information about that portion of the meeting from officials.
Pemberton explained to council that in the 14 years she served on the Board of Review she has never experienced problems like this and she said Leahy was disruptive to the hearing process.
She also explained that often sensitive information is shared during the Board of Review hearings, when a taxpayer may be asking for a hardship exemption or revealing a buyer/seller agreement that she believes should not be public.
Attorney Gary Wilson, of , said Board of Review hearings are part of Michigan's Open Meetings Act. Furthermore, he said "tax valuations are a matter of public record."
"There is nothing that would happen in a meeting that would fall under the privacy exemption," Wilson said.
Holding open Board of Review hearings is especially important in smaller communities like the Grosse Pointes because there is a much greater chance that property owner may know one of the board members as a close friend, relative or neighbor, Wilson said.
In addition to ensuring property owners are taxed appropriately, the Board of Review has a great deal of power and the way to ensure that is not abused is by having it fall under the Open Meetings Act, Wilson said.
Leahy urged council to take his complaints seriously to avoid having the State Tax Commission take over their Board of Review duties, which he said would also cut their collection portion of the payments and further reduce the Shores income.
He also questioned to the Shores council why the Board of Review failed to follow the direction of several local and state legal and tax officials, saying their defiance should be addressed.