Garden City’s mayor says residents who wanted to plead with the City Council to save their homes weren’t allowed to speak because officials had a pizza party planned after the meeting.
Speaking one day after he and other City Council members walked out of session without taking public comment from at least seven former homeowners facing eviction, Randy Walker said the meeting’s main purpose was to swear in new officials.
Those meetings don’t usually feature public comment — and a party was planned immediately afterward, he said.
“It’s a happy occasion,” Walker said. “We had food waiting. We had pizza coming out of the oven at 7:45 (p.m.).”
The explanation was hard to swallow for Nicholis P. Dunsky, whose home was foreclosed because of back taxes. He faces eviction and brought his family to the council meeting.
“That’s a ... (poor) excuse,” he told The News. “We felt like we didn’t matter.”
The controversy arose because Garden City, like several suburbs, acquired tax-foreclosed homes from Wayne County before they were offered on public auction. The homes were then sold to developers, including JSR Funding of Warren, that plan to flip them for profit.
Officials for the cities said they want to prevent blight and discourage absentee landlords from acquiring properties at the county’s fall auction. But many homeowners said they thought they still had time to save their homes before the auction and weren’t aware they were sold until they were served with eviction notices.
Attorney Tarek Baydoun, who represents the homeowners, said he plans to file a complaint to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office alleging Garden City violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Leonard Niehoff, a University of Michigan law professor and Detroit News attorney, said the law requires some form of public comment at public meetings. Violations are misdemeanors punishable by fines of up to $1,000.
Walker, who was re-elected in November, said precedent holds that public comment isn’t taken at swearing-in ceremonies. He said protesters “can come to the next council meeting” but the city is unlikely to intervene.
“The houses were foreclosed by the county,” said Walker, who is the city’s part-time mayor. “We are not the property owner anymore. It’s out of our hands.”
Dunsky and his wife, Paula Newcomb, could lose their home and their 30-year-old daughter Andrea Rowe could lose hers as well. The total debt on both homes is $27,000 and includes taxes and fees dating to 2011.
Both homes have been in their family for 60 years. They fell behind after several family deaths, including Rowe’s 7-month-old son in 2011, and job losses.
Like many other families, they said they missed required payments but thought they had time. Newcomb said she went to the county in August to pay $15,000 but was told it was too late.
“Why are they dealing with the developer and not giving us the same opportunity to buy (the house) back for the taxes?” Dunsky asked.
David Szymanski, assistant to the county treasurer, said Newcomb and Rowe entered into a series of payment plans, the most recent in January, but didn’t make payments after that.
He said staffers make it clear that missing payments can mean the loss of properties.
The auction is held in September and October for properties typically owing three years in unpaid taxes, but cities can take properties in July by exercising their right of first refusal. Taylor bought 106 properties, while Lincoln Park took 90; Redford Township, 76; Dearborn, 35; and Garden City, 28, according to county records.
At least one homeowner in Lincoln Park may escape eviction after being profiled in The Detroit News last week. The city and JSR Funding are working with Marvin Barski Jr. to sell him back his home for the $4,400 the developer paid for it.
Barski owed 2012 taxes but was current on his 2013-15 taxes. He said he was confused and didn’t realize he could avoid foreclosure by paying the oldest debt. About $1,200 would have kept him out of foreclosure, which he said he didn’t pay because he was recovering from surgery.
“It looked like a mistake and we corrected it,” said Brad Coulter, Lincoln Park’s emergency manager.
Coulter said there is one other homeowner the developer is trying to help. He said he’s unsure how many other Lincoln Park residents face eviction and the city may not participate in the program next year because of the controversy.
“We are trying to find a way of getting ahead of the problem (brought by the tax auction) and communicate to people all the type of assistance that is available so we don’t get to this problem,” Coulter said.
Baydoun, who represents several residents in Lincoln Park, Garden City and Taylor facing eviction, argues the developers’ contracts should be voided because they don’t meet the law’s requirement that there be a “public purpose” when the city buys an owner-occupied tax foreclosure. Many of the occupied homes aren’t blighted, he said.
He said officials could have avoided problems by notifying residents that the cities had bought their properties and giving them a final window of time to pay their bills before selling to the developers.
Baydoun is using a robocall, an automated telephone call that delivers a recorded message, to educate Garden City residents about the controversy.
He argued a Garden City ordinance selling the properties may be invalid because it was never published before it took effect. A call to Robert Muery, city manager of Garden City, was not returned Tuesday.