Senior trips put into question
By ZEINAB NAJM
HEIGHTS — Mayor Daniel Paletko and the City Council continued their back-and-forth about misspending allegations bringing senior trips to the forefront of the discussion during a June 11 meeting.
As the council meeting was starting, Council Chair Denise Malinowski-Maxwell announced that item 9G under reports from city officials, Parks & Recreation Director Brian Haddad — senior trips was going to be removed.
“This is the mayor attempting to hold the senior trip hostage for his own personal agenda,” Malinowski-Maxwell said. “I have been approached by seniors who have heard that if they come to our council meeting, have us stop the audit, the senior trips would not be canceled. This is all a smoke and screen stall tactic by the mayor to interfere with the forensic audit that the council voted for.
“The senior trips are an administrative decision not city councils. If Mayor Paletko and administration wants to interfere with senior trips, that is their decisions not ours. So, we’re referring 9G back to administration and Mayor Paletko to do as they choose with.”
Paletko responded by saying 9G was put on the agenda because Councilman Bill Bazzi objected to payments two meetings ago.
“I came up and (City Treasurer) John Riley came up and said those payments were for senior trips and he suggested that somehow elected officials and appointed people were taking those trips and they are not and therefore we wanted clarification because it was suggested like there was something illegal,” he said. “So we wanted to know if the council is agreeable to how for the last 30 years or so these senior trips have been done. The resolution was on there to get your approval that we can’t continue to operate as we have for the last 30 years.”
Malinowski-Maxwell said that the mayor’s point was understandable, but the item on the agenda is an administrative function so the council couldn’t vote on it.
“So, go ahead and make your decision and you know if you want to do it the way we’ve all done it in the past I have no problem with that,” she said.
The council is awaiting a decision from Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Muriel Hughes on a lawsuit against Paletko filed by the city council regarding a forensic audit request.
Attorneys from both sides argued their case in court June 13, but a decision has not been made on whether Paletko will have to sign a contract authorizing the forensic audit.
The city council first voted on a resolution to seek a forensic audit to provide answers for questions surrounding almost $1.4 million missing for the city’s Public, Educational and Governmental Fund during a Feb. 26 meeting.
Next, the council passed the law firm appointment resolution to hire Ottenwess, Taweel & Schenk PLC at a March 26 meeting which was followed by a Paletko veto.
In an eight-page veto letter to the council he said the forensic audit, “is a political witch hunt that will waste city money and violate the law.”
The City Council voted 5-2 April 9 to override Paletko’s veto.
Before the veto, the council again voted 5-2 to reintroduce the law firm appointment resolution for possible reconsideration. Councilmen Dave Adballah and Robert Constan opposed in both 5-2 votes.
At a May 9 special council meeting, the council voted 4-2 to file a complaint against Paletko for his refusal to sign the contract. Council members Bazzi, Tom Wencel and Lisa Hicks-Clayton and Maxwell, voted yes while Abdallah and Constan opposed and Muscat abstained.
The vote was brought to the council after Hughes ruled May 7 that Maxwell could not sue Paletko on behalf of the entire council, meaning that a vote to approve the lawsuit would have to take place first.
During the May 14 council meeting, the council members voted 5-2 for the second time to override Paletko’s veto of the resolution the council approved to file a complaint against him after he refused to sign a contract allowing for a forensic audit. Abdallah and Constan opposed.
At the June 11 meeting, Bazzi said he talked to a few senior citizens who said they were told to stop the forensic audit or their trips will cease.
“I want to reiterate one of the things we never mess around with is senior citizens trips or anything because they’ve done so much for us and we have so much respect for our seniors,” Bazzi said. “We’ve got to take care of our seniors because they took care of us.”
He also began to list items he wanted to go over that the mayor mentioned and “used again to push his agenda.”
“Concerns in the past which the mayor failed to say earlier is the reason why we have a forensic audit on what I said at the last meeting,” Bazzi said. “There’s at least the last 10 years of audits that were done where there’s a lot of repeat findings, same findings, findings that you don’t even see at a grade school. It’s a lot of findings that could have been done by somebody who doesn’t have a degree in accounting and it doesn’t get corrected.”
Some of Bazzi’s concerns were the increase in water rates and using the water fund as a “cash cow” causing residents to pay for it; the combined sewage overflow and the week residents were overcharged; PEG fees that the council still doesn’t have an answer on; millions of dollars in FEMA grants because of flooding issues and that flood-prone homes were not purchased; and excessive credit cards.
“Also mentioned was excessive credit cards that we have one of the meetings, then somebody requested a credit card we said, ‘Oh we we don’t really have that many credit cards,’ but yet we’re paying excessive credit card payments, and there’s a lot go items that we’re paying for and you guys are paying for as residents exceeds the amount that the city council approves way exceeds it and it doesn’t get in front of us.”
Bazzi added he looked at the last two years of the check registry during his research and discovered several items that do not match what the council approves, so to him the concern isn’t about the senior citizen trips.
“I’ll be the first one to approve the senior citizen trips because like you guys said, you reimburse and you guys pay for your own trips, I’m not concerned about (that),” he said. “I’m concerned about something is saying that’s used as a senior trip not used as a senior trip and the forensic audit is going to actually bring that to light. That’s all I want.”
Paletko said that he didn’t know who said that if a forensic audit was eliminated senior trips would continue and the two are not related.
“The fact was I asked you to go see the meeting four weeks ago, see what Mr. Bazzi said and then you tell me the attack was on credit cards and for the trips,” Paletko said. “I just need it as an administration because it was implied that we were somehow going on the trips abusing the system. I eliminated almost every credit card. The Police Department has one, the treasurer has one, I don’t know who else has a credit card because they were all eliminated.”
On June 4, the council was sent a letter from Haddad who said that during his brief time as director he has heard many concerns come from the council with questions as it relates to traits and other senior expenses. He also said that in a recent news article, “there are cruises, museums, zoos, sporting events out of state, casinos, cider mills and sporting stores” listed on which unauthorized or excessive money was spent.
Muscat told the mayor Haddad put out the letter stating, “Because I would like to be transparent and cooperative, I do not feel comfortable continuing senior trips that result in the payments that were mentioned in both the article and at a city council meeting. If the city council wishes to stop these costs and audit the past costs, I feel senior trips should require your approval.”
In the letter, Haddad asked that the council members vote to either continue the senior trips and the related expenses or if they wish, to stop the senior trips pending the forensic audit.
When questioned by Muscat if Haddad put out the letter on his own, if the mayor did or if Haddad did with the mayor’s direction Paletko said he signed it and concurred in it.
Malinowski-Maxwell responded to the discussion by saying, “I guess it’s not the senior trips in question. It’s just some people have questions to some things that are listed as senior trips weren’t actual senior trips, that they were funded for something else but put under that line item.”
Also in the letter, Haddad said Parks & Recreation Deputy Director Kim Constan has been in charge of the senior trips and expenses for 30 years without questions adding that he feels more comfortable if the council either approves or denies the senior trips going forward.
She said the senior trip program was one of the first she started when she was hired at her current position and that because her name was mentioned in the letter many senior citizens have contacted her worried about losing the program.
“These trips offer both opportunity to get out of the house and socialization that increases their quality of life,” Kim Constan said. “I am not sure why my name was mentioned in this document other than to implicate to the seniors that I had something to do with this request that was brought to the city council today. I am being told that this agenda item is being spun at one of the senior centers like this was my idea — it was not my idea and I had nothing to do with it nor was I personally informed about it by my boss, Mr. Haddad. I had to view it online like everyone else did.”
She added that up until now “the personal attacks have just be directed at me,” but she now feels that the programs she has created are in danger of being attacked too.
“I would not destroy something I worked so hard to build,” she said. “I started this program in 1990, it took a lot of hard work and has grown to include 2,698 individual senior participants today. It has helped our senior population beyond measure and has made the Dearborn Heights senior citizens program to be known as one of the best, maybe even in the state.”
To end her comments, Kim Constan explained how the senior trips are funded and organized.
The trips are subsidized by the SMART millage money that was voted in by the residents; that money pays for the transportation costs and allows the low-income seniors to participate; and then the seniors are charged an individual fee that may occur during the day of the trip.
An administration fee is charged to cover the staff’s registration time. Constan said she has been the administrator since the program was established, but that the Parks & Recreation director has always signed and approved checks for the places seniors go on trips.
“When a check request for a trip is turned into the comptroller’s office an invoice or receipt is attached so there is no question in regard to its validity,” she said. “It’s a very important program and we’ve got to protect it for the wellness of our senior community. It is a lifeline for the recently widowed, the seniors that are no longer able to drive and the seniors who have no family residing near them. Our senior population has made this world what it is today. We should respect that, respect them and not use something so precious to them to accomplish other goals.”
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at [email protected])