Land Bank director Saskia Thompson could be next Detroit official pushed out

January 12, 2022, 11:13 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Saskia Thompson (Photo: YouTube)

The Detroit Land Bank Authority’s board is trying to oust executive director Saskia Thompson in what would mean another leadership change for the controversial agency tasked with helping eliminate the city’s blight.

The effort to remove Thompson — a four-year veteran of the quasi-public authority that is the city’s largest property owner — has been underway for at least a month, sources with knowledge of the situation say. The reason why, however, is unclear.

Friday update:

Since joining the Land Bank as executive director in 2017, Thompson has presided over a substantial reduction in the number of structures the agency owns, in line with its goal of restoring vacant property to productive use.

Though the Land Bank has faced frequent criticism from residents who say they’ve been unfairly prevented from purchasing property, that does not appear to be what’s driving the potential change. Nor are past controversies surrounding the demolition program the agency wrapped in 2020, which prompted investigations over billings and health hazards.

One board member who spoke anonymously declined to name any specific performance issues, complaining only of Thompson’s apparent refusal to leave on the board’s desired timeline. Thompson, four other board members, the mayor’s office, a Land Bank spokeswoman, and agency executives all did not respond to or declined requests for comment.

Thompson’s removal would follow that of fire chief Eric Jones, who is to depart Jan. 14 as Mayor Mike Duggan seeks a “new direction in leadership.”

Duggan has just begun his third term with a new city council, which does not govern the Land Bank but decides its budget. Newly selected Council President Mary Sheffield has previously said she wants to explore dismantling the organization, whose structure allows for limited public input.

Since the Land Bank was re-established in 2014, its governing board has been run by Erica Ward Gerson, a Duggan appointee. Ward Gerson and Thompson have had a somewhat strained relationship, a source familiar with the inner workings of the agency told Deadline Detroit, due in part to what the source characterized as Ward-Gerson’s micromanagement of the agency.

“Erica is really the one in charge, it’s really her Land Bank,” the source said, explaining that all decisions outside the agency’s existing policies and programs require Ward Gerson’s approval to go before the board. “I’ve never seen a board run like that. Saskia saw very quickly that Erica calls the shots and she couldn’t be a true leader and that rubbed her the wrong way.”

Ward Gerson was among the board members who did not respond to requests for comment.

The Bloomfield Hills resident and former corporate and finance lawyer was tapped by Duggan in 2013 to create a framework for how to address blight in the city as he ran for his first term. The two previously worked together at the Detroit Medical Center, where Duggan was CEO and Ward Gerson chaired the board of its Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Ward Gerson is also a big political donor and the wife of Ralph Gerson, the well-connected nephew of the late Bill Davidson.

Thompson, a Detroit native and graduate of the city’s public schools, came to the role from Philadelphia, where she was deputy finance director and executive director of the office of property data. She has a master’s in urban planning and has spent much of her career in municipal governance.

Since she took the helm, the number of structures owned by the agency has fallen from about 30,000 to 13,000, thanks in part to increased sales. Thompson also expanded eligibility for the purchase of vacant “side lots,” giving people living within 500 feet of vacant parcels the chance to buy them for cheap, as opposed to only next-door neighbors, as was previously the case.

“She’s accomplished the most of any of the directors in the past, she’s held the position longest and is also uniquely qualified,” said the source, who does not have any allegiance to Thompson.

The agency was previously helmed by Carrie Lewand-Monroe and Kevin Simowski.

Morale at the approximately 130-person agency, however, has been low, the source said, blaming budgetary constraints and pressures.

“The staff is underpaid and the amount of work put onto them is untenable,” they said. “But in my opinion that starts with the mayor and trickles down through the administration. You’ll never make the mayor happy and then you start taking your frustrations out onto the executive team.”

It’s unclear how long Thompson’s contract runs or what the terms surrounding her potential departure might be. Land Bank spokeswoman Alyssa Strickland, who also represents the board, did not respond to numerous requests for comment and basic information by our deadline. Thompson’s contract does not appear to be publicly available.

While the leadership is in question, so too may be the agency’s future. Sheffield, before she became council president, said in 2020 that she wanted to examine the possibility of bringing public property back under city control.

“I hear a lot of complaints, a lot of outcry about the lack of transparency, the lack of accountability with the Detroit Land Bank Authority,” she told The Detroit News. “So really, it’s how do we make the Detroit Land Bank more accountable? Or, how do we dismantle that current structure, because currently it’s not working for the average citizen.”

While such a move could be less efficient, it would give an elected body a say in property disposition, rather than a board composed of appointees who don’t have to live in the city.

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