FRASER — The July 13 Fraser City Council meeting may have been the first step of an impending long-term legal battle involving Fraser Mayor Joe Nichols and acting Mayor Matt Hemelberg.
Both individuals are the subjects of sexual harassment allegations, which were made public during a special council meeting June 12.
The investigation was recently completed, which prompted a July 13 closed-door discussion involving all seven city council members, City Attorney Tim Tomlinson and City Manager Wayne O’Neal. Following discussion, the council appeared back in its chambers more than four hours after the meeting began.
Councilman Michael Lesich wasted no time making a multipart motion to censure Nichols and Hemelberg, to ask them to resign within a 48-hour period, and to request Gov. Rick Snyder to forcibly remove the two if they if they did not oblige. One motion was made for Nichols and one was made for Hemelberg, with both individuals recusing themselves from voting.
Each motion was rejected by council majority, with Councilwoman Patrice Schornak making a follow-up motion for both members to be removed according to a tribunal process. Each vote passed 4-2, with council members Lesich, Schornak, Mike Carnagie and Kathy Blanke voting for the measures. Councilwoman Yvette Foster rejected both motions.
Schornak said she sought a tribunal process as a means of transparency, and due to not trusting the governor to properly remove the embattled councilmen. The council also voted to retain independent counsel to oversee the process.
A motion was also approved for all council members, sans Nichols and Hemelberg, to be in communication with department heads and O’Neal. Previously, a gag order existed in which council members could not interact with employees at City Hall.
The council also voted to publicly release the report of the allegations, accessible via the Freedom of Information Act. Thomas Fleury, a Southfield-based attorney who was hired by O’Neal, investigated the matter and recently completed his findings.
Resident Deanna Reiner suggested that the two men exit gracefully.
“Why don’t you two just go ahead and resign? Save all the city the money that we could be spending on Fraser,” Reiner said. “You know what the allegations are, we don’t. … As a resident, do the right thing.”
Amy Baranski, a Fraser resident and attorney, said it’s a small city, and professionalism should be maintained while dealing with this legal matter.
“Falsely accused, properly accused, I have no idea. But I know victims have rights, you have rights,” Baranski said. “And if we keep that in mind, we won’t have to pay more money. I do applaud it being in public.”
Mayor, acting mayor vow to fight allegations
Nichols and Hemelberg spoke with media members following the council’s decision.
Nichols said that the report was composed of the allegations from three women, stating that one report was more closely related to a hostile work environment. Hemelberg believes that none of the allegations have to do with sexual harassment.
The pair maintained their innocence, assuring they would fight allegations that they insinuated are a byproduct of politics.
“It’s unfortunate, and I’m very sorry the city’s going to have to go through this … based on a divided council,” Nichols said. “It’s no secret the council wanted to come out of the gate and exercise an authority they feel they have.”
He said he’s glad the report is now public so that individuals can see what’s in the report, while presenting him and Hemelberg with the opportunity to defend themselves.
The report was solicited by O’Neal and paid for by the city, he added, saying that the morning after a recent “no” vote occurred on Public Act 33, he was told by O’Neal that Fleury’s investigation was complete.
“Mr. Fleury never interviewed us,” he said. “Matter of fact, Mr. Fleury never acknowledged that I left a message for him saying, ‘I’ll absolutely sit down with you.’”
Hemelberg said the allegations will end up costing Fraser “thousands and thousands of dollars.” He said it’s always been a council that has voted 4-3, with him, Nichols and Foster voting together.
“This is a divided council,” Hemelberg said. “Everybody here knows when this tribunal comes up, we’re already voted (out). The four have spoken, so they’re going to vote us out.
“But it’s not going to end there. It’s going to go to Mount Clemens, to circuit court. It’s going to go as far as it has to go.”
Nichols took umbrage to his and Hemelberg’s families being “dragged through the streets” in public and on social media, saying it’s not the division of the council that is destroying the city, but those residents who have personal animosity toward the two.
“I’ve told an off-color joke, I’m not going to stand here and tell you I’m perfect,” Nichols said. “But I have never tried to intimidate or harass or make anyone I work with or come in contact with uncomfortable. … I’ve never come out to hurt anybody.”
Hemelberg maintains that the allegations were made due it to being an election year in the city. He stated that the report helped convince him to not run for re-election and to put his Fraser home up for sale and move to another community.
“For me to resign right now, that will never happen,” Hemelberg said. “Me resigning says that I’m guilty. You know what, I’ll spend the money and I will prove I’m innocent.
“Whether I have three months to go or three weeks to go, I’m not going to walk away and look like I’m guilty. I know I’m innocent.”
O’Neal said at the meeting that, with the help of the city attorney, he will hire independent counsel and keep council members abreast on the process. The goal is for counsel to be selected by the next scheduled city council meeting in August.
The city charter requires a simple majority for council action on the matter, meaning only four member votes are required.
Representing Nichols and Hemelberg is Don Gasiorek, of Farmington Hills-based Gasiorek, Morgan, Greco, McCauley & Kotzian, P.C. Angela Mannarino, an associate attorney with Gasiorek, said the firm hasn’t fully delved into Fleury’s report due to not receiving it until the afternoon of July 14. She stated that a preliminary issue involves O’Neal’s retaining of independent counsel, which requires council approval.
Also, she said that due to the veracity of the complaint and the timeline in which the situation was handled, the firm doesn’t believe the removal of Nichols or Hemelberg is the correct task at hand.
“We’re going to review the report with our clients and figure out the right course of action,” Mannarino said.
C & G’s initial attempt to retrieve the report was unsuccessful. Check back for updates.