Detroit City Council candidate calls for ethics overhaul

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — A former journalist running for a seat on Detroit City Council is calling for an overhaul of the city's ethics board and more stringent financial disclosure rules for the legislative body. 

M.L. Elrick, who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing public corruption, announced his run to represent Detroit's District 4 in April laying out a platform of opportunity, safety and accountability. He faces off Nov. 2 against community advocate Latisha Johnson for a four-year term representing the east side district. 

Elrick's call for change comes as members of the City Council are at the forefront of a federal investigation involving Detroit towing operations in what amounts to the broadest public corruption probe in the eight years since former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of racketeering conspiracy.

A federal raid at City Hall on Aug. 25 coincided with raids at the home of Councilman Scott Benson, at-large Councilwoman Janeé Ayers and their chiefs of staff, Carol Banks and Ricardo Silva, respectively. The searches were the latest development in a scandal that has led to bribery charges against District 4 incumbent Councilman André Spivey.

"The stench of public corruption hangs over City Hall, threatening to derail Detroit’s

comeback and undermine public confidence in government," Elrick said. "If that is allowed to happen, faith in government will be lost. And when faith is gone, hope is next. And when hope is gone, we have nothing."

Elrick on Wednesday shared his plan to revamp Detroit's ethics division and how members of the board overseeing it are seated. He's urging new requirements for financial disclosures and is proposing eliminating free vehicles for the city's council members.

"It has been nearly 15 years since U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade announced an end to the 'Culture of Corruption' in Detroit. We even rewrote our constitution — the city charter — to help crack down on and remove unscrupulous public officials. Clearly, there is more work to be done," Elrick said.

M.L. Elrick, center, announces his campaign for Detroit City Council's District 4 seat on E. Warren in Detroit on April 5, 2021. The former journalist who is now running for a seat on Detroit City Council is calling for an overhaul of the city's ethics board and more stringent financial disclosure rules for the legislative body.

He wants the city council to take immediate action on the plan, "but since they failed to call for Gabe Leland to step down even after he admitted to misconduct in office when he reached a plea deal," he believes the only way to get the implemented is to elect people who support the plan.

In June, Councilman Gabe Leland pleaded guilty to misconduct in office, resigned and was sentenced to two and a half years of probation.

The 38-year-old was accused of agreeing to accept $15,000 in cash and free car repairs from a Detroit businessman in exchange for his vote on a controversial land deal. The allegations resulted in an indictment on federal bribery charges in addition to a state charge of misconduct in office charge, but the federal charge was dismissed as part of the plea agreement.

Elrick has reported on Leland and formerly exposed questionable behavior by Spivey, who has been charged with bribery and is scheduled to appear in federal court later this month.

After the August raids, District 6 Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López called for ethics training for elected officials. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has said it was a policy he would endorse, however, there's already a commission that conducts it.

Castañeda-López sent a memo to the Council Rules Committee, urging "annual, mandatory training on the city's ethics ordinance."

"Shockingly," she wrote last month, "there is currently no section that speaks to training of any sort."

Currently, three members of Detroit's ethics board are appointed by the mayor, three more are selected by the city council and one other member is appointed jointly by the mayor and council.

Elrick suggests the board should be reconstituted with representatives appointed by members of the public with legal, business, labor and academic backgrounds to prevent politicians from appointing "lapdogs when we need watchdogs."

They should undergo a background check and televise their meetings, he added.

Under his plan, the city would enhance its one-year ban on public officials becoming lobbyists by forbidding any city employee or official convicted of a crime involving their work for the city from becoming a lobbyist in Detroit. 

"Lobbyists should be required to pay a fee for each client they represent, as well as disclose who their clients are before speaking at a public hearing or meeting with a city official," Elrick said. "Fees may be waived for charities, nonprofits, churches and academics."

Elected and appointed officials should not accept a gift with a value of more than $100 or pay market value for it and disclose gifts on a quarterly basis "including who offered the gift and the value of it," he added.

The 2012 charter notes public servants "shall not accept gifts, gratuities, honoraria, or other things of value from any person or company" doing business or seeking to do business with the city, seeking official action from the city or registered lobbyists.

Elrick's plan goes on to say both city employees and lobbyists should disclose their transactions, meals, gifts, trips, purchases and purpose within seven days.

A hotline and app, similar to Improve Detroit, should be developed and promoted within city government and publicized for the public "so everyone knows who to contact with concerns about ethical conduct," Elrick said.

The ethics board, he said, should bring on additional investigators and at least a part-time public information officer whose duties include publicizing the board’s work and findings as well as encouraging people to register their complaints.

Lastly, all records should be publicly available online.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_