Fraser mayor, acting mayor removed from office

Both vow to fight in higher court

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published September 19, 2017

FRASER — Former Fraser Mayor Joe Nichols and Councilman Matt Hemelberg left Fraser City Hall and walked toward their cars while a group of residents chanted, “Na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, goodbye.”

That was following the tribunal hearing that took more than two hours Sept. 18. Nichols and Hemelberg were each voted out of office by a majority of Fraser City Council members.

Nichols was voted out by a 4-1 margin, while Hemelberg was voted out by a 3-2 margin. Councilwoman Yvette Foster opposed both removals, while Councilwoman Patrice Schornak was the additional “no” vote on Hemelberg.

The tribunal was sought by council months ago in the aftermath of alleged sexual harassment Nichols and Hemelberg are accused of. Former Macomb County Circuit Judge Peter Maceroni presided over the hearing, which imitated a real courtroom in the chambers of Fraser City Hall.

Attorney Robert Huth, on behalf of the city, called witnesses to discuss their experiences working with Nichols and Hemelberg.

Attorney Thomas Fleury, who was originally hired by City Manager Wayne O’Neal, was the first witness. He discussed how O’Neal approached the situation and asked him to conduct an independent investigation. Fleury noted he has about 45 years of law experience, dealing with labor laws, civil rights and employee claims in the workplace.

Fleury told Huth that O’Neal respected the process and was not part of interviews conducted with those who alleged harassment. He added that from his vantage point, no witnesses had ulterior motives. It eventually led to a 16-page report that reached the hands of council members, prompting the tribunal.

“I told (O’Neal), ‘We can’t let this fester.’ … It was the right thing to do at the right time, and (witnesses) were willing to talk to me,” Fleury said.

O’Neal then took the stand himself, recalling how, as interim city manager, he reportedly saw Nichols warmly embrace and kiss former Fraser Finance Director Mary Jaganjac — one interviewee in Fleury’s report — as well as Hemelberg reportedly rubbing the shoulders of Fraser Library Director Lorena McDowell.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. … “I’ve never seen someone so friendly in life,” O’Neal recalled.

Leah Brown, who has worked in Fraser approximately the past three years, said her unwanted encounters with both men occurred while she was working in the building department.

She mentioned how the two men allegedly flaunted photos of themselves with scantily clad women, as well as a comment Nichols made about her attire.

Brown said she was at her desk one day when Nichols noticed she was wearing leggings. He allegedly said not everyone could wear leggings as well as she does, and that he enjoyed watching her leave.

She said he made a vulgar comment regarding her outfit.

“I could see out of the corner of my eye he was looking me up and down,” Brown said.

Michelle Kwiatkowski, a 24-year employee of the city, said that Nichols and Hemelberg began to allegedly harass her after an incident occurred in 2016 in relation to city-owned hot patch being used to fix potholes on Hemelberg’s business property in Roseville.

After City Clerk Kelly Dolland confirmed she had heard “lewd remarks” by the men, Foster was called to testify by Angela Mannarino — the lawyer for Nichols and Hemelberg.

Foster said she was not present when the alleged incident occurred with Brown, even though Brown testified under oath that Foster was nearby when the situation occurred. Foster claimed she had no recollection of anything being sexual in nature.

Once all the witnesses testified and council made its final decision, Nichols and Hemelberg walked out of council chambers prior to meeting’s end. They then stood outside the doors of city hall and spoke with members of the media for a few minutes.

“It’s a kangaroo court,” Nichols said. “The reality in there is we didn’t get due process. The judge noted a couple of times (that) any other time the objections would have been sustained. Any other time you take a case to trial when the two star witnesses with the most complaints or allegations don’t show up, typically that case falls apart. And here you’ve got a majority who’s been against us since we were elected, that made up their own rules tonight.”

Hemelberg said the end result was what he and Nichols expected.

“This was known to come,” Hemelberg said. “As you can see we’re not really surprised by it. … It’s a bias. You’ve got a plaintiff who hires a lawyer, which that lawyer hires a judge. You can’t get a fair trial.”

Nichols alluded that the four council members — alluding to Schornak, Kathy Blanke, Michael Lesich and Mike Carnagie — have been against him and Hemelberg since the beginning.

He said the four have pushed their own agenda, claiming, “There’s more going on in collusion with this city.”

In regards to comments attributed to him in the report, Nichols attempted to explain himself. He said Brown brought up the conversation about leggings because she was heading up north with her family.

“There was no misconstrued,” Nichols said. “There were conversations that happened; the words were then turned around. … “I said there’s certain people, myself included because I don’t have a physique to wear leggings, and I said, ‘Those are something young people should wear.’ I didn’t say she should wear it. And she was at her desk and not exiting for lunch.”

Mannarino echoed her clients’ words, saying that all three knew removal was a sure thing at the tribunal hearing and that the fight is expected to continue in a higher court. Removing Nichols and Hemelberg was not a solution to the city’s woes, she added.

She said she would evaluate the situation throughout the next week and try to find another solution.

“I think it’s clear from testimony that came out that there are numerous issues of levels possibly existing in the city, and it’s obviously something they have to deal with,” Mannarino said.

Huth later said the tribunal, while unprecedented in Fraser, was transparent and allowed city residents to hear firsthand allegations and see deliberations done in real time and not behind closed doors. He called the council’s decision “an absolute just result” based on the behavior of Nichols and Hemelberg.

“I really fully expected Nichols and Hemelberg to take the stand and tell their side of the story,” Huth said. “The fact they didn’t surprised me. I just think these serious type of allegations made against them, the fact that they wanted to have a hearing, they complained that they didn’t get a chance to talk to the expert and give their side of the story. All of that led me to believe that at some point we were going to hear what they had to say. Apparently, it was nothing.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Carnagie, who is not running for reelection this year, ascends into the mayoral role with Nichols removed.