From left, former Fraser Mayor Joe Nichols and former Councilman Matt Hemelberg consult with their attorney, Angela Mannarino, during a special tribunal hearing Sept. 18 inside Fraser City Hall. Both were ousted after being accused of sexual harassment by city employees.

From left, former Fraser Mayor Joe Nichols and former Councilman Matt Hemelberg consult with their attorney, Angela Mannarino, during a special tribunal hearing Sept. 18 inside Fraser City Hall. Both were ousted after being accused of sexual harassment by city employees.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Scandals and sinkholes: looking back on 2017 in Fraser, Clinton Township

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published January 2, 2018

 One of the homes on Eberlein Drive, located next to the Fraser sinkhole, was demolished in March. The sewer interceptor collapsed on Christmas Eve 2016, with the project being completed Dec. 5. Two homes in total were demolished, while one was saved and may be up for sale in 2018.

One of the homes on Eberlein Drive, located next to the Fraser sinkhole, was demolished in March. The sewer interceptor collapsed on Christmas Eve 2016, with the project being completed Dec. 5. Two homes in total were demolished, while one was saved and may be up for sale in 2018.

File photo by Sarah Purlee

 Fireworks reflect off the Clinton Township Civic Center pond July 5 during the township’s annual Independence Day event.

Fireworks reflect off the Clinton Township Civic Center pond July 5 during the township’s annual Independence Day event.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Claude Wood, left, of Fraser, has his arm around Bernard Wojnowski, of Ray Township. Both World War II veterans celebrated with their peers after receiving medals from the French government for their bravery Aug. 3 at Fraser VFW Post 6691.

Claude Wood, left, of Fraser, has his arm around Bernard Wojnowski, of Ray Township. Both World War II veterans celebrated with their peers after receiving medals from the French government for their bravery Aug. 3 at Fraser VFW Post 6691.

File photo by Deb Jacques

 A custom roadster speeds down Gratiot Avenue during the Clinton Township Gratiot Cruise Aug. 5, marking the event’s 15th year.

A custom roadster speeds down Gratiot Avenue during the Clinton Township Gratiot Cruise Aug. 5, marking the event’s 15th year.

File photo by Sean Work

 Community members remembered lost loved ones by hanging photos and writing messages Aug. 31 in front of Christ Church in Fraser for Overdose Awareness Day.

Community members remembered lost loved ones by hanging photos and writing messages Aug. 31 in front of Christ Church in Fraser for Overdose Awareness Day.

File photo by Sarah Purlee

 A young boy cools off July 8 during during Fraser Parks and Recreation’s water fight at Steffens Park in Fraser. The event featured water slides, squirt guns and a whole lot of fun.

A young boy cools off July 8 during during Fraser Parks and Recreation’s water fight at Steffens Park in Fraser. The event featured water slides, squirt guns and a whole lot of fun.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

FRASER/CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Politics and pitfalls, or more specifically, a sinkhole, dominated the headlines coming out of Fraser and Clinton Township this past year. Here’s a look back at some of the biggest stories we covered in 2017.

 

Mayor, councilman voted out due to sexual harassment allegations
Small-town politics made big-time news in 2017.

In Fraser, sexual harassment allegations against former Mayor Joe Nichols and former Councilman Matt Hemelberg led to both being voted off council during a special tribunal hearing Sept. 18.

The process began Aug. 7 when Fraser City Council members voted 5-0 to move forward to hire an attorney, Thomas Fleury, to review the allegations. It was later determined that multiple Fraser city employees had accused both men of harassment.

Per the city charter, attorney Robert Huth was hired to oversee the hearing, which involved delving into Fleury’s 16-page report and interviewing key witnesses involved in the investigation.

Nichols and Hemelberg maintained their innocence throughout, so much so that they — along with their attorney, Angela Mannarino — challenged the city’s tribunal in Macomb County Circuit Court.

On Sept. 13, Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Richard Caretti said he would make a decision as to whether the tribunal could lawfully take place. One day later, Caretti issued an opinion denying the request, saying, “While an injunction would maintain the status quo while this action for superintending control is pending, an injunction would essentially give Nichols and Hemelberg the relief they are seeking in their complaint, which is to bar the council from conducting the removal hearing.”

After more than two hours of interviews conducted by Huth and Mannarino in a packed City Hall Sept. 18, Nichols was voted out 4-1, and Hemelberg was ousted with a 3-2 vote. Councilwoman Yvette Foster voted against each measure, while Councilwoman Patrice Schornak was the additional “no” vote on Hemelberg.

Before the tribunal officially concluded, both men stood up and walked out as a slew of cameras and media personnel followed them. Nichols exclaimed that he and Hemelberg never received due process, calling the entire ordeal a “kangaroo court.” Hemelberg said he wasn’t surprised, adding that bias existed all along in a city full of “collusion.”

On Oct. 6, a group of the city employees who alleged the sexual harassment filed a lawsuit against Nichols and Hemelberg in Macomb County Circuit Court on grounds of employment discrimination. The case, which is still open, seeks more than $1 million in damages, according to their lawyer, Herbert A. Sanders.

“It’s our position that the former mayor and former city councilperson created a hostile work environment for the women of Fraser, in which most, if not all, the women working within the city of Fraser municipal building were subjected to this,” Sanders said in October. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but my clients have been subjected to emotional distress and mental anguish and seek to be compensated.”

On Nov. 6, Nichols and Hemelberg filed a motion to recuse Caretti, alleging that Caretti’s relationship with Huth — Huth has been Caretti’s campaign treasurer since 2004 — was not disclosed and affected legal precedent.

“What I find particularly troubling is that neither Judge Caretti nor Mr. Huth disclosed that information to Matt, Joe or I,” Mannarino said at the time.

Huth said both men were grasping at straws, saying, “My role as Judge Caretti’s election committee treasurer has not required much effort since 2004 because no one has ever run against the judge.”

Chief Judge James Biernat later determined that Caretti should not be recused. That led to a Dec. 7 opinion by Caretti, denying the plaintiffs’ motion for writ of superintending control.

In his opinion, Caretti said, “Nichols and Hemelberg did not meet their burden of demonstrating that the council failed to perform a clear legal duty, which is to reinstate them to their respective elected offices. ... Their motion for a writ of superintending is therefore denied.”

Huth called the judge’s decision “inevitable” based on the evidence in the case. Mannarino and her clients were left to figure out if any other legal avenues existed.

 

New council forges ahead with tough decisions
The ousting of Nichols and Hemelberg, along with a Nov. 7 City Council election, brought in some new leadership in Fraser.

Hemelberg received the fewest votes among five candidates. Suzanne Kalka, David Winowiecki and Michael Lesich were the top three vote-getters, each earning four-year terms on the council. 

“We cannot make everyone happy, but I want to listen to the residents,” Kalka said after the election. “In the first 60 days, we are picking a mayor, tackling the budget, and I’d like to begin setting up committees for our industrial park and commercial businesses to find out what ideas they have for our city.”

Longtime Councilman Mike Carnagie, who served two terms and ended as mayor protem due to Nichols’ absence, decided not to run again for council. He called the decision “bittersweet.”

“Mainly, I really feel that I’ve served as a paid on-call firefighter for almost 30 years, six years on the planning commission, 17 years as a detail commander for the Honor Guard, eight years on City Council and put my heart and soul into doing my civic duties,” Carnagie said. “I also really believe in term limits for political positions, and I actually ran on that platform my first term.”

At press time, Councilwoman Kathy Blanke holds the mayoral position after a vote by her fellow council members. The future of the seat, and how it will be filled, is expected to be discussed in the first few weeks of 2018.

The need for fiscal responsibility has possibly never loomed larger in the tight-knit city, notably after the second consecutive failing of a public safety millage — known as Public Act 33 — in the past 12 months.

On Nov. 7, 56.9 percent of registered voters in seven Fraser precincts decided to reject the proposal. That was after the council acted in July to approve a levy of 2 mills in accordance with Michigan Public Act 33 of 1951. If voters had approved the measure Nov. 7, another 3 mill levy would have been tacked on and would have generated $1.14 million in revenue.

The millage would have cost the average homeowner $150 per year. Since the council already approved the 2 mill levy on the July tax roll, an additional 3 mills would have cost the average resident $250 per year — equating the financial shortfall projected for last year and again this year.

Prior to the election, Fraser City Manager Wayne O’Neal said the city had a revenue problem and not an expense problem. 

“We cannot survive as a city without this millage,” he added.

Cuts and changes loomed across the city, as O’Neal said at a Dec. 14 council meeting, “There’s no place left to go.”

The council ultimately decided to eliminate eight public safety officer positions, close the Fraser Activity Center, utilize four-day work weeks at City Hall, increase monthly senior complex apartment fees by $25, retain live streaming of city meetings, and keep the city’s dispatch service in its current form rather than outsourcing it.

The moves were made while others still have to be calculated, such as future payments to the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System and other employee and post-retirement benefits.

Moving forward, O’Neal warned that cuts alone will not lead to a balanced budget. The city needs more revenue, according to the city manager.

 

Sinkhole saga finally comes to an end
Christmas Eve 2016 delivered a giant hole in the ground between Fraser and Clinton Township, on 15 Mile Road.

The third sinkhole in nearly 40 years, it was Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller’s official welcome to her newly elected position.

Some public officials estimated that the sewer interceptor project could cost more than $100 million and take more than one year to complete. Homes were condemned, and holiday plans quickly changed.

During his annual State of the Township address Jan. 26, Clinton Township Supervisor Bob Cannon noted how the sewer collapse not only impacted Fraser and its residents, but also Clinton Township residents and businesses, saying, “The sinkhole on 15 Mile (Road) will cost millions to fix and will keep a major artery out of commission for quite some time.”

On March 8, Macomb County Public Works enlisted the aid of the Michigan State Police Bomb Squad to enter the condemned homes and retrieve personal items via robots. 

Then came somewhat of a curveball, as the city of Sterling Heights made a motion to be heard in Macomb County Circuit Court on the grounds of not being liable to pay $22.2 million in fees incurred from the collapse.

Sterling Heights is one of 11 entities in the Macomb Interceptor Drainage District along with Clinton Township, Harrison Township, Fraser, Chesterfield Township, Lenox Township, Macomb Township, New Haven, Shelby Township, Washington Township, Utica and Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Faunce rejected the city’s motion, however, with Macomb County Public Works later saying on March 18 that the Sterling Heights lawsuit could shift repair costs to non-MIDD communities.

“The bottom line is that this work being done by our engineers and our construction contractors is going great — on schedule and as expected,” Miller said around the time of the lawsuit. “Our problem is that one of our communities has taken a series of steps that is greatly complicating and adding cost to the management of this project. … Their actions are costing their residents millions of dollars more than is necessary. None of the other 10 communities in the MIDD have joined them in their suit.”

On March 24, demolition officially began on one of the affected homes on Eberlein Drive. The next step involved building a shaft approximately 300 feet long by 25 feet wide and 60 feet deep to better allow for the repair and replacement of the 11-foot-diameter collapsed interceptor.

Amid lawsuits and home destructions, the project forged on. On July 6, public officials from the county level, the city of Fraser and Clinton Township were on hand to see for themselves approximately 4,000 feet of Hobas pipe, delivered from Texas, at the scene of the collapse. It was also noted that there had not been any sewage discharges into local waterways or in residents’ basements in 2017 — a trend that continued until the project’s completion.

Paving started on 15 Mile Oct. 31, which offered solace to public officials, engineers and residents that the project really could be completed in less than one year’s time. 

A little more than a month later, the final day had come and the repair of the collapsed interceptor was complete, costing $75 million. Miller drove through a red ribbon held by officials on 15 Mile in a Ford Mustang to celebrate the occasion. It occurred more than 300 days after 22 homes on Eberlein Drive were temporarily evacuated for safety concerns.

In total, 4,000 linear feet of piping was used to fix the collapse and line an adjacent pipe; the combined horsepower of eight installed pumps installed to lift sewage from 60 feet below the ground was 2,250; the bypass system was built to accommodate 150 cubic feet per second of sewage; and 1.2 miles of the bypass system was built above ground to carry sewage around the collapse.

This was the third interceptor collapse since the pipe was created in 1973, with similar instances occurring in 1978 and 2004.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel praised the total effort.

“I don’t know of any other project where that has ever been done before, and I don’t know if any other county has ever done that before,” Hackel said Nov. 27. “You see the remedies going through the court process, and we tried to figure out, how do we bypass that and come to some agreement?

“I look at that as, that’s a commitment on behalf of the government to try to figure out, if that were us — if that were our homes, a relative or friend — how would we want to be treated? How would we want that to be handled?”

On Dec. 5, Miller summed up the catastrophe, saying that hard work persevered and a community came together, rather than grew apart.

“This day has been a long time coming,” she said. “But when we stop and realize what has happened here in just under a year, it truly is a testament to the engineers, the construction crews, the finance team — just everyone who has been part of this team to bring us to this point.

“Most importantly, I want to thank those residents and business owners who were most directly impacted by this collapse,” Miller said. “You really showed us what Macomb County people are made of and reminded me yet again of why I am so proud to be a part of this community.”

 

FBI targets corrupt public officials
The past year saw more development in the Macomb County corruption scandal related to trash contracting and towing, including former Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds being targeted by the FBI. U.S. District Court records indicate that Reynolds will be in front of an Eastern District of Michigan judge in early January.

Back on May 31, Charles B. “Chuck” Rizzo, of Bloomfield Hills, the former CEO of garbage hauler Rizzo Environmental Services, was indicted on five counts of bribery and three counts of conspiracy to commit bribery.

“This indictment demonstrates our commitment to bring to justice all participants in bribery schemes, including both the corrupt public officials and the bribe payers seeking to profit from public contracts,” acting U.S. Attorney Daniel L. Lemisch said in a statement. “Our citizens are entitled to decisions based on the best interests of the public, not the best interests of politicians who accept bribes and bribe-paying contractors.”

Gasper Fiore, of Grosse Pointe Shores, was also charged with bribery that day. Fiore is alleged to have been working in connection with Reynolds, who was arrested Oct. 13, 2016, for multiple counts of bribery and for conspiring to commit bribery.

The FBI alleges that in March 2016, Fiore paid Reynolds a $4,000 cash bribe in order for Clinton Township to secure a towing contract. In May 2016, Fiore allegedly paid Reynolds another $3,000.

On Dec. 20, Fiore pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bribery in connection to a municipal towing contract in Clinton Township. At his plea hearing, Fiore admitted that he conspired to pay bribes to Reynolds in the amounts of $4,000 and $3,000 in March and May of 2016, “in order to buy Reynolds’ vote” in relation to the towing contract.

That money was reportedly paid through Rizzo, who was already cooperating with federal law enforcement at the time of the bribes. On Nov. 9, Rizzo pleaded guilty to bribery and embezzlement charges.

Also indicted were Charles P. Rizzo, of New Baltimore, and Derrick Hicks, of Bloomfield Hills, on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Charles P. Rizzo is the father of Chuck Rizzo.

Other politicians allegedly involved include former Chesterfield Township Supervisor Michael Lovelock, former New Haven Trustee Christopher Craigmiles and former New Haven Trustee Brett Harris, all of whom accepted plea deals. Clifford Freitas, the ex-Macomb Township trustee arrested Oct. 25 by the FBI on bribery charges, has also pleaded guilty.

Macomb Township Trustee Dino Bucci was indicted Nov. 15 on 18 criminal charges that allegedly took place over a nine-year period and involved kickbacks, embezzlement and bribery. The charges — stemming from Bucci’s work for the township and the Macomb County Department of Public Works, where Bucci served as operational services manager — include conspiracy, bribery, embezzlement, extortion, mail fraud and money laundering. 

 

School bond fails
Heading into 2017, Chippewa Valley Schools was gearing up for a big $89.9 million bond proposal during the May 2 election. However, 58.6 percent of the nearly 140,000 voters voted against the proposal.

Approximately 52 percent of the proposed funds would have been used for student safety and facility upgrades, including security camera updates, door locks, roofs, parking lots, flooring and mechanical equipment.

Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, R-Macomb Township, launched a campaign in April aimed at defeating the proposal. Drolet listed two main reasons for the proposal to fail — that the district borrowed too much money and that families outside of Clinton and Macomb townships that utilized Schools of Choice would not be obligated to pay for a share of the debt.

Moving forward, Superintendent Ron Roberts said the district’s general fund will be integral in terms of curriculum.

Despite the bond defeat, the district used the first half of the 2017-18 school year to do some collaboration and highlight employee achievements.

The district worked with the Clinton Township Fire, Police and EMS departments in August to simulate a bus crash, using students to act as injured passengers during the simulation. The demonstration brought out nearly 100 Chippewa Valley bus drivers and staff, and allowed the emergency personnel to practice in case a real accident should happen.

Later in the year, bus driver Jan Reed rallied the district with a Stuff the Bus event in November that collected clothes, coats, boots, toys and other items for district families in need during the holidays.

In September, Chippewa Valley High School Choir Director James Pecar was honored for his work with the autistic community by receiving the Making a Difference Award at the Play-Place for Autistic Children’s third annual awards gala.

Pecar organizes an annual “A Cappella for Autism” concert to raise money for the Macomb/St. Clair Autism Society of America chapter.

Staff Writer Joshua Gordon contributed to this report.