Veterans memorial placement remains contentious in courts

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published July 27, 2021

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ROYAL OAK — The issue of the city of Royal Oak moving its veterans memorial less than 100 feet as part of the development of a downtown park has ignited a grassroots movement and led to legal proceedings.

The battle became litigious and moved to the courts May 25. On July 9, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jeffery S. Matis ruled in favor of a group of plaintiffs who sued the city to pass ballot language asking voters to approve or deny moving the memorial from its current position.

The plaintiffs, known collectively as Save the Veterans Memorial, include veterans groups and other individuals.

The veterans memorial proposal, if passed by the city, would appear on the Nov. 2 general election ballot. The parties have an Aug. 10 deadline “for the ballot wording of the proposals qualified to appear on the ballot (to be) certified to county and local clerks,” according to court documents.

Despite litigation, the city of Royal Oak moved the veterans memorial to its planned location during the month of May, and the city continues construction of the new downtown park.

During a special meeting July 14, the Royal Oak City Commission voted in closed session to authorize its legal counsel to file an appeal against the judge’s ruling. City Manager Paul Brake said the city exercised its right to appeal since it was not on the prevailing side.

“It’s not a simple issue of putting it before the voters,” Brake said. “What they’re asking for is not only moving it back and reparations, but also control of the park from this point forward, so there are many different elements.”

On July 19, Matis denied the subsequent appeal and motion to stay enforcement of the July 9 order, which had been filed on July 16 by the city. In his opinion, Matis wrote, “This Court finds that imposing a stay would eliminate the sense of urgency for the appeal that clearly exists with the August 10, 2021 deadline.”

Brake said he did not want to comment at length on the litigation, since the case is still open. He said that the grassroots group began gathering signatures to file a petition to have the matter placed on the November ballot in March, and the case originally was brought before a different judge, who had to “recuse themself.”

“Our position is pretty firm,” Brake said. “We hope to finish constructing the park without delays for an opening in late October or early November. There will be a large cost to remove the concrete and redesign the park if the taxpayers give approval to that expense.”

He added that the city hired special legal counsel to help with the case, but he could not give an estimate of the legal costs incurred to date.

Charles Semchena, one of three attorneys arguing the case on the side of the plaintiffs pro bono, said the plaintiffs would respond July 26, after press time, to the court’s denial of the city’s appeal.

He said the prior location of the memorial, centered in front of the Royal Oak Public Library’s rear steps, was ideal because it created an amphitheater effect.

“The location was perfect, and attendance at ceremonial events increased, attracting thousands to honor veterans who died serving our country,” Semchena said. “Now the mayor and commission are moving the memorial to the east, losing all the benefits of the amphitheater. The new location will not be able to accommodate the large crowds as it once did, and noise from the road will be an issue again.”

He added that five candidates for mayor and the City Commission have filed to run for the seats of incumbents “partially in response to all of this, and to an outcry from many residents who have suffered from other wrongful actions by the mayor and commission.”

The candidates include Thomas Roth for mayor, as well as Pamela Lindell, Richard Karlowski, William Barnes and Derrick George for commission.

The mayor and four City Commission seats will be determined by voters in November. Mayor Michael Fornier is running for reelection, as well as Commissioners Sharlan Douglas, Brandon Kolo and Melanie Macey for four-year terms. Monica Hunt, who was appointed to the commission following the departure of Randy LeVasseur, is running against Barnes for a partial term ending Nov. 11, 2023.

The veterans memorial was moved to its current location in 2006 from an alley that was not conducive to large gatherings. The Royal Oak Memorial Society worked for three years to raise funds and find the best place.

In 2007, voters approved the dedication of the Barbara A. Hallman Memorial Plaza. Those against the move of the memorial contend that the memorial cannot be moved out of the plaza without a vote.

Former City Attorney David Gillam maintained that the memorial would still be within the boundaries of the plaza, which includes the area between City Hall, the library, Troy Street and the monument. He drafted the ordinance that protects the space and requires a public vote before the property can be sold, which the city is not considering.

More than 1,500 people weighed in on the look and feel of the park during public visioning sessions facilitated by Detroit-based landscape architecture firm MKSK. Local veterans groups said the city did not reach out to them specifically for their input regarding the memorial.

Concerns from those against moving the memorial include lack of space, lack of privacy, lack of visibility, noise, traffic and further damage to the memorial.

Those in favor of the move believe the relocation will help protect the monument with gardens and trees and station it in a less congested area with less foot traffic.

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