By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — Be it paperwork or particle science, the devil is in the details. Several city officials experienced the former recently, when Councilman Robert Abraham’s tax problems raised the issue of whether certain language in an affidavit required of City Council candidates is in agreement with the city charter.
The section in question asserts, “I am not an officer of a company or corporation that is in default to the City of Dearborn.”
But the city charter makes no such reference, stating only, “No person who is in default to the city may hold elective or appointive office unless the default is resolved.”
The matter came to question following a February report by the Times-Herald revealing that a limited liability corporation operated by Abraham owed more than $80,000 in back taxes for 2007 and 2008 on four investment properties and an office building, all in Dearborn.
The discrepancy was overlooked when the Election Commission approved the affidavit earlier this year, City Attorney Debra Walling said. Walling, who is a member of the commission along with City Clerk Kathleen Buda and resident Joyce Knoop, said the affidavit was a new initiative pushed by the Clerk’s Office.
“I asked why we needed this in the first place, since we have never had one before,” Walling said. “But I think the Clerk’s Office was concerned about verifying the qualifications, so we decided to go ahead and put one together and let the candidates vouch for themselves.”
Although telephone calls to the Clerk’s Office for comment were not returned by press time, past conversations with employees have indicated that a new state law taking criminal history checks out of the hands of local law enforcement and putting them into the state’s was the impetus for the affidavit.
The law, they said, would end up costing the city about $35 per search and add some undesirable red tape to an already-involved process.
Walling said a Clerk’s Office employee formed the affidavit by putting together segments taken from similar documents used in comparable Michigan cities.
“I admit, when the Election Commission looked at the document the first time, we didn’t catch it. It was one sentence that should have been taken out,” Walling said. “But we’ve drafted a new affidavit that quotes strictly from the charter, and that’s what should have been done in the first place.”
To make sure everything is clear — including defining what exactly “default” means — the city has retained attorney Richard Kaufman to issue an opinion on the matter. His opinion will be attached to every new affidavit pulled by a council hopeful and mailed to those who already have pulled a petition. Walling was unsure of the cost or when exactly the opinion would be ready, but she said it would be “soon.”
Kaufman is not new to charter issues in the city. In 2006 he issued an opinion that led to the eventual removal of Charter Commissioner Stephen Dobkowski for back taxes owed on his mother’s estate.
In addition to clarifying sections 6.12 and 6.2 of the charter – both outlining a candidate’s qualifications for office – Kaufman’s interpretation of “default” will be used by current council members in evaluating whether or not to call a removal hearing in Abraham’s case. Council President Thomas Tafelski, Councilman Douglas Thomas and Councilwoman Suzanne Sareini all have said previously that they needed to hear from outside counsel before making any decisions.
The point could become moot, however, as Abraham has promised in a letter to fellow council members and the mayor that all back taxes would be repaid by next Wednesday.