Politics and Prejudices: Pay raises for DIA’s top brass called into question 

Life takes funny bounces, and if you live long enough, you learn you can't predict what it will throw at you.

Ten years ago, for example, I would have agreed it was quite conceivable that by 2014 I might be dead, broke, or worse — working for the legislature, say. But I would've been confident that being an Olympic athlete wasn't in the cards.

And I never would've dreamed that I'd end up approvingly quoting L. Brooks Patterson, the brawling, boozing Oakland County Executive, about art. What would've been even harder to believe is that on a major controversy involving the art world, Patterson would be right, and the folks running the Detroit Institute of Arts would be utterly wrong.

Yet that's exactly what happened last week.

Here's the background, for those of you who have spent the last few years on some bench intensely contemplating a Modigliani: The Detroit Institute of Arts really is a world-class art museum, which technically belongs to a city that long ago became too poor and too broke to properly maintain it.

Two years ago, led by Annmarie Erickson, the DIA's chief operating officer, the museum campaigned hard for a millage in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. Times weren't good, but the citizens, admirably realizing what an asset the museum was, voted to tax themselves for the DIA's benefit.

What we didn't know, however, was this: Earlier that year, the museum board gave Graham Beal, the DIA's director, a 13 percent pay raise, to more than $513,000 a year in total compensation. His number two, Annmarie Erickson, the museum's chief operating officer, got a 36 percent raise.

She was pulling down $369,000, as of two years ago; for all we know, both of them have gotten more raises since then.

True, both of their salaries put together aren't as much as one of the Detroit Tigers' crummy relief pitchers gets. By the standards of the industry, neither is overpaid. The director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example, gets more than Beal, and that museum isn't in the same class as the DIA.

Indianapolis, however, isn't bankrupt and isn't going after its poor retirees' pensions. True, Detroit wasn't bankrupt two years ago. Still, when they were pleading with the voters to tax themselves, Beal's and Erickson's salaries were 10 times what Joe Blowski was making in some machine shop in Warren, if he was, indeed, still working. But it was clear to most that an emergency manager and harder times were coming.

Naturally, the DIA's top officials never breathed a word about their big raises, during the 2012 campaign or when the museum faced its biggest threat in history this year, as creditors demanded the art be auctioned off to pay Detroit's bills.

The art institute and its supporters were aghast at the thought of that, as we all should've been. With difficulty, a "grand bargain" was put together in which the legislature ponied up $195 million, and a group of foundations did even more.

The Detroit Institute of Arts leaned on its supporters, too, for an additional $100 million. You might have expected the DIA's top officials to take at least a symbolic pay cut, to show that they were willing to sacrifice in solidarity with the city.

Indeed, while the grand bargain was designed in part to shore up city retirees' pensions, they are still taking a cut, which means their pittances will steadily lose value.

But neither Graham Beal nor Annmarie Erickson publicly offered to forgo anything.

Nor did we know how much they made. We only learned about their large raises last week, when the nonprofit museum filed tax information for that year. This was not only selfish, it was dangerously risky. Ask yourself: Would the voters have approved taxing themselves to fund the DIA two years ago if they had known that the top leadership had gotten mammoth raises and huge bonuses? ($50,000 each.)

Certainly Macomb County would not have gone along. Even more frightening — do you really think the legislature would've coughed up that money if they knew about these staggering raises for the top brass?

L. Brooks Patterson not only gets this, he put it better than anyone else: "The optics of it stink," the perpetual Oakland County executive said, adding, "The public rallied around the DIA, and this is the thanks they got?"

Brooks, being Brooks, added, "It's an insult to the Detroit taxpayers, and it ranks right up there with Marie Antoinette's 'Let them eat cake.'"

That might be a bit exaggerated, but the brawling, boozing Patterson was far closer to the mark than the remarkably tone-deaf museum officials. When the raises became known, Gene Gargaro, head of the museum's compensation committee, made it clear he was clueless.

"They've earned it," he told a reporter. "We — meaning the citizens of metro Detroit and the state of Michigan — are getting a terrific return for what they're paid."

Well, maybe so, but as Brooks said more colorfully, it doesn't look good. Voters won't forget this, not for a long time, if ever.

Incidentally, we have no idea what the dynamic duo are being paid now; they may well have gotten more raises and bonuses in the last couple of years. If all goes well, of course — and with the bankruptcy "plan of adjustment" — the museum collection and the DIA building will no longer be city property.

But it ain't over till it's over, meaning until Federal Judge Steven Rhodes signs off and allows Detroit to emerge from bankruptcy. The revelations of these raises probably won't be enough to derail that, though there was still one dissatisfied creditor out there, Financial Guaranty Insurance Co., which has made noises about selling off the art to get its money.

Still, there's a sense of betrayal. Don't look for that to go away anytime soon.



Absentee Ballots

Nobody likes to admit this, but anyone who stands in line to vote on Election Day is probably guilty of irresponsible voting, for one simple reason:

There are too many races, too many candidates, and too many crazy ballot proposals to make sense of while standing up. I vote absentee, and I've written about politics since the 1970s.

Yet when I got my ballot this year, I found there were people running for local races — school and community college boards — who I didn't know anything about. So I went to my trusty computer to study them.

Half an hour later, I finished my ballot. What do people do who see these names for the first time in the voting booth?

We know the answer: Vote for familiar names like Kelly or Smith, or just skip those "down ballot" races completely.

Neither of which is a responsible choice. In most states, anyone who wants to get an absentee ballot can. In Washington and Oregon, every ballot is an absentee ballot. The state mails one to every registered voter, and they mail it back.

This has the additional advantage of saving the government money. Most people vote that way in Montana, Colorado, and some other states.

But Michigan has none of it. Here, even to get an absentee ballot, you have to be over 60 years old, or claim some kind of excuse, like you expect to be traveling or — really — in jail.

To her credit, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson wants to change that. But that hasn't happened, because sadly, there are some who want as few people voting as possible.

We should demand they explain why.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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