Opinion: Restore integrity to Detroit City Hall

Ellen Ha

Democracy is based on public trust which demands transparency from those who govern and serve the public. Building trust takes great effort and time, while losing trust takes little in effort or time. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) was established to ensure honesty and integrity in the City of Detroit in hopes to regain and maintain public trust.

Not too many years ago, the City of Detroit experienced one of its darkest moments in history, including public humiliation and embarrassment. The citizens of Detroit, including the people in the neighboring cities and states, witnessed the Mayor, his father, several Mayoral appointees, a City Council member, council staffers and contractors indicted and sentenced to jail on multiple charges.

Ellen Ha

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At the same time, the City’s Water and Sewerage Department had been and was still operating under the control of a federal district court judge for violation of federal environmental laws. Likewise, the Detroit Police Department was operating under a federal consent decree within the purview of the US Department of Justice.

Every day, for a period of time, the news on TV started with a headline of “City in Crisis.” The Governor, at the request of the Detroit City Council, initiated a historic removal hearing until the Mayor finally resigned. Reporters from all over the country descended on the City to cover the “City in Crisis.” Public trust in the City’s ability to govern itself was eroding fast.

If the events leading up to the removal hearing was not enough, shortly thereafter, the City filed for bankruptcy. Again, Detroit made history. An Emergency Manager (EM) was appointed by the Governor and the EM ran the City through a series of EM Orders which dictated how the City was to be governed. The implication was that Detroit was not able to govern itself.

Not too long ago, in response to a very public debacle and demise of the City, the citizens of Detroit called for a Charter revision to address multiple issues, including abuse, waste, fraud and/or corruption in the City. This is how democracy is supposed to work, and it did. The 2012 Charter of the City of Detroit contains the will of the people and reflects lessons learned by the people through its recent tumultuous history.

This is the context in which the OIG was created in the City of Detroit. The people, through the Charter, requires our Office to ensure we govern ourselves and conduct business with contractors with honesty and integrity.

To assist the OIG in this effort, the Charter extended jurisdiction of this Office to all public servants, including elected officials, City contractors, and subcontractors when investigating abuse, waste, fraud and/or corruption. Likewise, the Charter requires all those who fall under the OIG’s jurisdiction to fully cooperate in the Inspector General (IG)’s investigation.

While the Charter and the City’s Debarment Ordinance provide the IG with the authority to debar contractors and subcontractors for certain misconduct, the Charter does not specifically address what authority the IG would have over its recommendations against public officials and employees.

The assumption was that the head of the agency would review and consider the IG’s recommendations and act upon them. As such, the OIG operates with a certain element of trust that its findings and recommendations would be used by the City agency to improve the current situation gone awry and would serve as a deterrence so that the City is not confronted with a similar situation.

However, when government officials fail to act on our recommendations, the findings contained in our reports have lessened impact. Without the sound endorsement of our recommendations from our government, we cannot be as effective.

More importantly, when an agency charged to ensure honesty and integrity in City government cannot serve its full purpose, the result is erosion of public trust. We take no pleasure in recommending discipline and we do not dictate what measured discipline should be issued against the public servant. That is specified in the City’s policies and procedures.

Mayor Mike Duggan on Tuesday said several trusted aides will undergo document management training in the wake of an independent investigation that found the workers abused their authority by directing lower-level staff to delete emails related to the controversial nonprofit Make Your Date.

The OIG currently has several published reports which call for measured discipline against certain employees. While we are mindful of management’s reluctance to discipline hard-working employees who may have meant well, when discipline does not match the wrong-doings, it can easily be viewed as favoritism. Good people can make well-intended decisions that impact the public’s ability to trust those who govern the City. Not one of us is perfect but actions have consequences.

Rules and discipline should apply universally and equally to all employees regardless of the position they hold. Like debarment, the purpose of discipline is not only to punish, but to serve as deterrence. Management must set the tone and let the public know that what is wrong is simply wrong regardless of intent. The City of Detroit cannot afford to go back where darkness lingers, where friends, family, and certain favored people are treated differently. We are all equal in that we all serve the public. We work for the citizens of Detroit who have entrusted us to do right and to correct the wrong. Let us restore integrity to our government so that we can continue to move forward.

Ellen Ha is the inspector general of the City of Detroit.