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Group sues Royal Oak over veterans memorial

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published June 7, 2021

ROYAL OAK — While Royal Oak Memorial Day celebrations went smoothly May 31, an underlying saga of controversy surrounds local veterans groups and elected officials.

The main point of contention is the relocation of the Royal Oak veterans memorial from behind the Royal Oak Public Library to a location 40 feet to the east, as proposed in designs for a new downtown park.

On May 25, a group called Save the Veterans Memorial filed a lawsuit against the city of Royal Oak in the Oakland County Circuit Court. The case was assigned to Judge Daniel P. O’Brien, but as of press time, a hearing had not yet been determined.

The complaint calls for city officials to place a citizen-sponsored initiative on the November ballot so that Royal Oak voters can decide whether or not to move the memorial.

The petitioners believe the proposed new location for the memorial is inferior. Concerns include lack of space for people to gather, lack of privacy, lack of visibility, noise, traffic and further damage to the memorial. One of the slabs of granite has a large crack.

Those in favor of the move say the relocation will offer more protection, placing it in a less busy area with more accessibility.

The group collected signatures to place the issue on the November ballot, but elected officials maintain that state law does not allow a public vote on the topic.

In a May 21 letter addressed to the mayor and City Commission, Commander Tom Roth, of the Frank Wendland American Legion Post 253, and Commander Chris Templeton, of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Acorn Post 1667, urged the elected officials not to attend the Memorial Day events, writing, “YOUR PRESENCE WILL NOT BE WELCOMED.”

“After we became aware of your intentions for the Memorial just before Covid arrived on our shores, we expressed our disappointment and opposition that the Veterans War Memorial was being moved,” the letter states. “You continued to avoid us like the plague, ignoring our letters and public comments.

“The Veterans War Memorial could be incorporated into the new park design as your own architect stated, but your actions make clear that veterans - particularly those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country - are of little importance to you.”

The Royal Oak City Commission attended the ceremony.

David London, chair of the Royal Oak Veterans Events Committee, expressed disappointment with the veterans groups’ politicizing of the national holiday.

“It’s not a veteran issue. It’s a handful of people who are veterans who have an issue with the memorial,” London said. “(Veterans) took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. We vowed to protect all Americans, not some. Nobody gets to pick and choose who gets rights in the Constitution or who is more American than somebody else.”

He added that the committee is “apolitical and nonpartisan,” and those who asked elected officials not to join the events are not part of the planning process.

“(The memorial is) not a burial ground. (Moving it) isn’t desecrating veterans,” London said. “Memorial Day is a day to get together as a country, set everything aside, all of our differences, and honor those people who gave their lives so we can be free.”

The veterans memorial was moved to its current location in 2006. The Royal Oak Memorial Society worked for three years to raise funds and find the perfect place.

In 2007, voters approved the dedication of the Barbara A. Hallman Memorial Plaza. Those against the proposed move contend that the memorial cannot be moved out of the plaza without a vote and that the city did not reach out to veterans specifically.

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.

Gillam drafted the ordinance that protects the space and requires a public vote before the property can be sold, which the current City Commission is not considering.

Carol Hennessey, president of the Memorial Society, said she has a “very heavy heart right now.” Hennessey leads the annual volunteer cleanup and placing of flags at veterans’ graves in Oakview Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day.

“I’m so disappointed in what the city’s done with the monument because it was a perfect place, and they should not have done that without a vote of the city because we made sure it was going to be safe,” Hennessey said. “I don’t know what they’re afraid of by putting it on the ballot.”

She recalled when the monument was last moved and the city added the names of 23 Royal Oak residents who never returned home from serving in the military.

“Their loved ones just cried and thanked us and said, ‘Now we have a place we can come to,’” she said.