This ombud's for you

Aug 28, 2002 at 12:00 am

John Eddings is not your typical civil servant. He is paid to make waves — and he gets a kick out of it. “It’s fun,” says the City of Detroit’s ombudsman.

He sits in his drab office on the first floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center and reveals the question citizens ask most: “What do you do and what can you do for me?”

The way he sees it, the ombudsman is “an impartial advocate of good government.”

He’s a charming, burly fellow who has lived in Detroit since he was 7, when his parents moved here from Mississippi. He claims he has not taken a single sick day since 1975, when he got his first city job.

Eddings might seem like a hidebound bureaucrat, but he’s no curmudgeon. He simply abides by rules and policies laid out in the city charter, and expects the same of all other city officials. When he thinks those rules have been disobeyed, watch out.

A couple years ago, Eddings sued the city for violating its charter when it challenged him for seeking outside counsel in a city legal matter. The city Law Department was representing the city in the case and thought it should also represent Eddings. But the ombudsman saw this as a conflict of interest and got his own attorney, which the charter allows him to do. After months of litigation and at least $40,000 in legal fees — paid by the public — a judge ruled in Eddings’ favor.

Eddings says the litigation was a waste of taxpayers’ money, but he had no choice but to sue. He explains that a key part of the ombudsman’s job is to investigate the executive branch, which includes most city departments. To do this, his office must maintain “independence, impartiality and confidentiality,” says Eddings. Allowing the Law Department, which is part of executive branch, to represent him when also representing the administration would have tainted his role in city government.

“It was a control issue and I refused to allow the ombudsman’s office to be controlled by the executive department,” he says.

These are not the waves the ombudsman routinely makes, but he seems to delight in such victories. He often chuckles raucously when describing them.

He and his 11-member staff spend most of their time disseminating information to the public, a task he sees as his core mission. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people call or visit his office each year to ask a question or lodge a complaint. About 10 percent of those contacts are written complaints, which are investigated and resolved within 30 business days on average, he says.

Each year, Eddings tallies the complaints to determine the top 10. He issues a report to the City Council in March, before the city budget is finalized. The council may give additional funds to a department that’s getting lots of complaints.

This year, like last, citizens complained most about abandoned cars. Eddings says many of the same complaints make the list every year.

Burned-out streetlights are regularly among the top 10. That complaint was No. 1 for three straight years, then fell to No. 6 last year, he says.

“In my opinion it’s not any better,” Eddings says of the city’s lighting. He thinks Detroiters have given up trying to remedy the problem. “People [residents] think nothing they do will make a difference.”

The ombudsman might not be able to resolve such big, pervasive problems, but he is very effective with smaller ones. A few years ago, he got a complaint from a citizen who had to pay a $75 towing fee to the Police Department to reclaim her stolen car. Eddings didn’t think a crime victim should have to pay a fine and raised the issue to council. Eventually, more citizens came forth to complain. Eddings helped persuade the department to waive the fee.

“Our objective is not to find fault, but to determine if a citizen has a legitimate complaint,” says Eddings.

Sometimes he is instrumental in rewriting inequitable city rules.

In 1999, citizens complained that they had not gotten credit for overpaying property tax. Before Dennis Archer became mayor, citizens had been notified of overpayments, which were refunded or applied to the next tax bill, says Eddings. “We found out that there were millions of dollars in overpaid property taxes,” he says. After months of wrangling, the Archer administration finally notified citizens who had overpaid and gave them refunds.

Eddings is keeping a close eye on the new mayor.

“So far, the only problem with this administration is getting information,” says Eddings.

In the past, he could talk to low-level staffers to resolve routine complaints. Now, he must talk to department directors, who don’t always respond, says Eddings.

“We met with the mayor, who is most impressive and full of energy,” he says. “It would be nice to see his appointees have the same energy.”

Strong words. Does he worry that his mouth will get him into trouble? Not at all, he says. He likes that his job is a 10-year nonrenewable position. The term limit gives others a chance to serve. It also keeps him honest, he says.

“I prefer not to be tempted to change an opinion in hopes of not offending anyone so I can be reappointed,” says Eddings.

He also likes that as ombudsman he cannot run for an elected office for at least two years after he leaves his post.

“It allows you to say or do things that would be considered political without being accused of advocating a political agenda,” says Eddings. “It’s a sense of freedom.”

Appointed in 1995, Eddings’ term ends Dec. 31, 2004, when he will retire. He and his wife will spend winters in Nevada.

If you have a question or complaint for the ombudsman, call 313-224-6000.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]