Oprah Winfrey once said “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” Let me tell you about my work as County Assessor in Indianapolis.
I was elected County Assessor in 2006. It was just my luck that the Indiana Supreme Court had recently directed the Indiana General Assembly to change the assessment laws. For many decades, the law included a depreciation factor that would allow some buildings, such as nicer, older homes to be assessed much lower than what the homes were selling for. The Supreme Court chose to enforce our Indiana Constitution’s requirement of a “uniform and equal rate of property assessment and taxation.” The new system more fairly represents the fair market value of houses and buildings, but the result was a dramatic increase in taxes for many property owners.
When this change was fully implemented, more than 25,000 property owners appealed their assessments. This was much more than the 1,000-1,500 appeals Marion County would see in a normal year. Homeowners were desperate to have the appeals resolved, because many of them saw huge changes in the escrow their mortgage companies had imposed on them. Many homeowners had an increase so large they were forced out of their homes.
There were so many appeals, and so many tragic situations. Each person wanted his issue handled immediately. It was hard not to drop everything and try to fix the next horror story. I knew that we would resolve more appeals quicker if we implemented a systematic way to handle them.
I decided that we would adopt a first-come first-served approach. We would handle the appeals in the order that they were filed. This would at least apply some fairness to the situation, because the most desperate homeowners would likely file first. As more appeals came in, we saw that some of the assessment problems were common to whole neighborhoods. I told my staff to take the houses from the same neighborhood out of turn if we recognized a common problem that could be fixed quickly.
One of the many property owners with a desperate situation was a man I knew from thirty years earlier when we were in high school together. Even though several of my 100 employees were the ones resolving the appeals, he asked to meet me personally. I agreed to meet.
My “friend” came in and explained his situation and asked me to help him speed up the process. I gently explained to him that we had a first-come first-served policy, but would make exceptions where a common, but easily-fixed problem was identified. Even after he heard this, he asked me to take his case out of turn, between friends for old time’s sake. You know, do it for him because, after all, we were both from our beloved high school.
I knew I had the power to ask any one of my employees to work on this case out of turn. I could have even pulled his case up on the computer, done my own sales comparison appraisal of fair market value, and checked to see the accuracy of his assessment and decided his appeal quickly. If I wanted to cheat, I could have lowered his assessment even if it was correct. I am sure he would have liked that.
But I knew I had been elected by everyone in Marion County, not just my “friends.” I knew that I was supposed to do my job fairly and not play favorites. Even though no one was watching, I told my high school acquaintance he had to wait in line like everyone else. I told him nicely, of course, by reminding him of all of the other folks who wanted their appeals decided quickly as well.
A judge has a great deal of power. Much of what a judge does either can’t be, or will not be reviewed for errors. If you want a judge who has the integrity to make fair choices, even when no one is looking, please vote for me.