West BloomfieldJune 29, 2012
Appeals court affirms twp. board defendants
By Eric Czarnik
C & G Staff Writer
WEST BLOOMFIELD — In the township’s latest legal turn of events, the Michigan Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court’s rulings in a lawsuit between two factions of the West Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees.
The appellate court affirmed June 21 that the defendants — West Bloomfield Township, Clerk Cathy Shaughnessy, and trustees Larry Brown, Gene Farber and Howard Rosenberg — acted legally in a 2010 vote to approve Police Chief Mike Patton without an initial nomination by Supervisor Michele Economou Ureste.
And while the appeals court disagreed with an earlier court ruling on the details, it ultimately affirmed that Brown can decline his compensation for attending meetings.
Brown said the rulings have proven that what he calls political attacks by the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Ureste and Trustee Steven Kaplan, were baseless.
“Once again, I have been vindicated by the courts,” he said, “and they have again upheld the fact that I am not doing something illegal. It is something that has been approved.”
In 2010, Ureste and Kaplan filed suit against the defendants in Oakland County Circuit Court to seek a judge’s ruling on four township board matters. Treasurer Teri Weingarden was initially a plaintiff too, but her name was quickly taken off the suit.
The plaintiffs argued that a board majority took actions that unlawfully undermined the supervisor’s authority. They sought clarification of the supervisor’s role in initiating a police chief appointment, firing department heads and handling collective bargaining negotiations.
On the fourth issue, Ureste and Kaplan also argued that a trustee can not refuse compensation for attending meetings. Brown has refused pay and has asked the township to direct the money to a water benevolence fund for residents unable to pay their water bills.
In 2011, Oakland County Judge Rudy Nichols ruled in the defendants’ favor on all four issues. Afterward, Ureste and Kaplan appealed the police chief and trustee compensation matters.
On the police chief issue, the appeals court interpreted a state statute dealing with townships and police as discretionary. The court disagreed with some of Nichols’ reasoning on the trustee compensation issue, though the earlier ruling was still affirmed in the end.
While the Court of Appeals ruled that state law does not give an individual trustee the right to refuse pay, it concluded that the township board legally resolved the matter. In 2011, the board voted to retroactively set Brown’s income at $0 when applicable and created a process for trustees to refuse pay.
“Moreover, this court has recognized retroactive modifications of compensations, stating in particular that the township board is ‘empowered to obviate mistakes and irregularities in its prior proceedings through retroactive resolutions, so long as they do not impair the rights of third persons,’” the higher court ruled.
Ureste said the latest ruling on state law and trustee compensation proved that she had a point. “As stated earlier, had we decided not to seek a ruling, the township would, as the judges stated, continue to be in violation of the law,” she said in an email.
But Kaplan questioned the appellate court’s acceptance of the resolution to retroactively alter Brown’s pay. That resolution was approved in January 2011, a few months after Ureste’s lawsuit was first filed.
“You can’t change the rules in the middle of a game,” Kaplan said.
The lawsuit’s legal costs have arisen several times at township board meetings, and both sides have blamed each other for the expenses. The defendants say the township has had to pay more than $40,000 to defend the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs say they used about $5,000 of their own money throughout the process.
In June, West Bloomfield resident Nancy Ohl filed a separate suit against Shaughnessy, Brown, Farber and Rosenberg to have a judge review the legality of sending trustee pay to a fund that pays for residents’ water bills.
During Ureste’s lawsuit, neither court ruled on the water benevolence fund’s legality, citing that the issue wasn’t part of the plaintiffs’ complaint.
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