Should The Mayor Of Detroit in 2014 Live In A City-Owned Mansion?

January 02, 2014, 2:08 PM by  Bill McGraw

Mayor Mike Duggan and his wife, Lori Maher, plan to move into the Manoogian Mansion later this month.

Something seems slightly off-kilter about that.

In a bankrupt city with an enormous amount of poverty but without enough cops, ambulances or streetlights, should the mayor live in a city-owned house on the river that has 15 rooms, an awesome backyard, boathouse and cabana?

I’m not sure the answer is totally clear.

The Manoogian family donated the mansion to the city in the mid-1960s to serve as a mayoral mansion. It's a relic of a time when Detroit was a larger, more prosperous city, and it puts Detroit in a rare category of wealthy, global cities that provide mayoral residences, such as New York and Los Angeles. In Chicago and most other American cities, mayors must fend for themselves. 

The Manoogian can be used only as a residence for the mayor, Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, said Thursday in an email.

“It is not an asset that can be sold, nor has it ever been under consideration for sale” in bankruptcy, Nowling wrote.

John Roach, spokesman for Duggan, added: “Per a restrictive covenant in the deed, the city cannot sell the home. If the city chose to no longer use the Manoogian Mansion, it would revert to the Manoogian estate.”

Nonetheless, Duggan, who lives in Palmer Woods, the city’s most exclusive neighborhood, risks putting himself in a couple of awkward positions by taking up residence in the manse.

First, as politicians say, consider the “optics.” How does it look? As the city fights through bankruptcy, it’s difficult to see any scenario in which living in the mansion would be an image-enhancer. It's bound to raise question from people following bankruptcy who live outside of Michigan. When retired city workers risk losing parts of their pensions, moving into the big house suggests an arrogant Marie Antoinette – or clueless Dave Bing -- not the no-nonsense, turn-around-expert that is Duggan.

Such tone-deafness seems unusual for Duggan, who has hit almost all of the right notes since he began campaigning for mayor almost a year ago. No matter how sensitive the situation – carpetbagger accusations, losing his spot on the primary ballot or questions about a white mayor in a mostly black city – Duggan always seemed to say and do the right thing.

The mansion and its secret donors

The second issue gets into a problem that has dogged such different politicians as Kwame Kilpatrick and Gov. Rick Snyder: Getting tangled up with donors giving money to a fund that operates in the shadows.

The mayor who moves into the mansion bears some responsibility for the costs of living there, but it’s unclear how much taxpayers spend to support the mansion and the lifestyles of its residents. That's something Duggan eventually could make clear.

The Manoogian is maintained, in part, by the Manoogian Mansion Society, a non-profit that pays for renovation and upkeep. It is funded by donations from people whose names are shielded from view. For decades, the fund that supported the mansion -- not always known as the Manoogian Mansion Society -- has almost always resisted transparency, even though there seems to be a clear public purpose in knowing who might be cozying up to the mayor by giving him money for his house.

In 2010, when the society had finished an extensive renovation before Bing moved in, society officials refused even to disclose to the Free Press the restoration’s overall budget.

(I left a phone message today for Eugene Gargaro, who has served chairman of the Manoogian Mansion Society.)

The Manoogian Mansion Society is not perfectly analogous to Kilpatrick’s Civic Fund or Snyder’s NERD Fund, but a politician’s money account with any degree of secrecy looks bad, especially as Detroit continues to recover from the Kilpatrick era.

Kilpatrick’s abuse of his Civic Fund helped send him to prison. In 2011, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette won a default judgment against Kilpatrick's cousin, Nneka Cheeks, accused of diverting $34,524 from the Manoogian Mansion Restoration Society for her own expenses, and she has been charged with a crime. 

In October, Snyder announced he will close his NERD Fund, but he refused to identify donors who gave more than $1.6 million to the nonprofit he formed in 2011.

Since the mansion was donated to the city, most mayors have lived there. Bing at first said he had decided not to live in the house, but he eventually changed his mind and moved in quietly.

Duggan is not a bad guy for deciding to live in the Manoogian. In some ways it seems that the mansion exists as a mayoral home, ergo, the mayor must stay there.

It’s like the new hockey arena.

It seems unseemly to use some public funds to help a billionaire build his stadium while the city has $18 billion in debt, but the money comes from a special tax fund that can only be used for downtown development. Ergo, it is used to help Mike Ilitch.

It’s just the way Detroit rolls. 

Take a tour through the Manoogian with WWJ's Vicki Thomas.

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