Bloomfield Township to explore changing to superintendent governance

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published August 19, 2019


BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — “I really thought this election was over. I guess not,” Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie said during the regularly scheduled Board of Trustees meeting Aug. 12.

It was the first meeting since a ballot proposal to approve a special assessment district to support police and fire operations went down in flames the week prior.

A deficit was created in the township’s coffers when the state of Michigan ordered post-employment benefit obligations to be more fully funded. A majority of residents voted against the overall net tax increase of 1.05 mills.

Savoie’s comment was in response to a parade of residents who approached the microphone during the meeting’s public comment portion — which lasted for more than half of the 90-minute meeting — to grill Savoie for what they called a poor and even deceitful job in leading the township.

Trustee David Buckley proposed that the board vote to install a superintendent to oversee township matters and essentially override Savoie.

“I’ve had this in thoughts and intentions for a long, long time,” Buckley said of his proposed resolution. “No matter what action the board chooses to take on this resolution, the people of Bloomfield Township have spoken with profound displeasure as to the status quo in Township Hall. The culture, environment (and) integrity of our Township Hall is in question, and our residents expect action.”

Buckley’s resolution suggested that the board appoint a superintendent with public finance experience who would report to the board and “assume all statutory responsibilities of a supervisor,” with a couple of exceptions.

“It gives taxpayers accountability from all seven board members,” Buckley explained. “While the supervisor would continue to chair board meetings and be the face of the township for ceremonial matters, (trustees) will get all information from the superintendent in equally timely and comprehensive manner.”

He said Savoie wrongly touted the August proposal as a fire and safety issue when it should’ve been sold as an OPEB obligation not met that should’ve been. Other members of the board denied that assertion, saying budget cuts alone without a revenue increase would have to include sacrifices from police and fire in order to find enough cash necessary to bridge the gap.

Buckley said the superintendent format of governance isn’t uncommon for townships in Michigan, and it wouldn’t be unlike the role of a city manager.

Michael Selden, the director of member information services at the Michigan Townships Association, said there are 46 townships in Michigan and 21 in Oakland County —15 of which are charter townships and allow for a manager or superintendent model of governance.

Two townships in Oakland County use that model: Oakland Township and Royal Oak Township, which both have a manager.

Selden said the responsibilities of manager and superintendent are similar, but they vary between municipalities.

Trustee Dani Walsh, who voted with Buckley against putting the SAD proposal on the ballot earlier this year, echoed Buckley’s sentiments and said she supported the resolution, suggesting that the trustees’ annual meeting stipends — along with funds saved from reducing the township supervisor and treasurer positions to part time, and a voluntary 20% pay cut from the clerk —  could be used to afford a superintendent job.

“With all of us kicking in, it gives us more than enough money to hire someone with qualifications that none of us have,” Walsh said.

“In terms of Dani’s comment, I think you should really speak for yourself,” said Treasurer Brian Kepes. “If you don’t feel qualified, I would agree with you. But that’s your issue, not mine.”

Walsh said she was just trying to be kind and that she is in fact the only one on the board who can oversee finances because she “went to the University of Michigan.”

The meeting only got more contentious from there, with residents shouting at the board from the gallery and the board split 4-2 on Buckley’s resolution. In addition to Savoie and Kepes, Trustees Neal Barnett and Michael Schostak voted against immediately installing a superintendent, but all agreed to more discussion on the concept.

“I share a view with some of my fellow trustees that this needs to be further studied. I’m interested in that conversation,” Schostak said in response to the idea of a study session to determine the pros and cons of changing governance formats.

Seeing that Buckley’s resolution wouldn’t be successful with just his and Walsh’s votes, the two agreed to planning a study session for a superintendent position — under the proviso that the date be set for a date in the very near future.

“This is a major emergency. You were tone deaf since last August on this issue, and we need to move forward,” Buckley said. “I don’t expect this proposal to be in its final stages, but I do expect to call the question tonight.”

Before Buckley was able to make a motion, Savoie stepped in to preface that he actually applauded the idea of exploring a superintendent format of government.

“This is part of governance. It’s part of good governance. But we should look at it from every specific position, whether it’s supervisor, whether it’s clerk and whether it’s treasurer,” Savoie said.

He went on to say that he doesn’t believe the SAD proposal failure to be a vote of no confidence in his competence, but rather direction from residents.

“None of us up here should view this as a threat, but a learning process and see where it takes us and where we want to be,” he added.

Walsh motioned to pick a study session date within the next two weeks. She extended the timeline to three weeks to accommodate the Labor Day holiday, and the motion was unanimously approved.

A study session for the Board of Trustees is listed on the Bloomfield Township calendar for 5 p.m. Sept. 9 at Township Hall. The regularly scheduled board meeting will take place afterward.

The next regular board meeting to take place before that is scheduled for Aug. 26.