Julia Schmitt, left, and Grishok Thayanithy celebrate graduating from Dakota High School on June 11 during the high school’s commencement ceremony.

Julia Schmitt, left, and Grishok Thayanithy celebrate graduating from Dakota High School on June 11 during the high school’s commencement ceremony.

File photo by Donna Agusti

Looking back on the big news from Macomb Township

By: Joshua Gordon | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published January 1, 2018

 The Erie Elementary School team celebrates the overall win at the Lego robotics competition March 3 at Dakota High School.

The Erie Elementary School team celebrates the overall win at the Lego robotics competition March 3 at Dakota High School.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Leo Canu, 6, of Washington Township, participates in the Barnyard Express animal show with Farmer John on April 1 during the Macomb Township Eggstravaganza.

Leo Canu, 6, of Washington Township, participates in the Barnyard Express animal show with Farmer John on April 1 during the Macomb Township Eggstravaganza.

File photo by Sarah Purlee

 Rosco the Clown poses with Everett Curd, 3, of Livonia, during a community picnic July 11 at the Macomb Township Recreation Center.

Rosco the Clown poses with Everett Curd, 3, of Livonia, during a community picnic July 11 at the Macomb Township Recreation Center.

File photo by Deb Jacques

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Go to a Macomb Township Board of Trustees meeting, or browse one of several Macomb Township resident pages on Facebook, and you hear question after question directed toward elected officials in the township.

The residents want answers after another year of corruption allegations in the township that have been levied at both a current and former trustee, along with an Open Meetings Act violation, “Cadillac health care” issues and questions surrounding the township’s bid process.

Residents voiced their distrust on several occasions, and as 2017 comes to a close, the voices seemed to multiply.

The biggest story was an 18-count criminal indictment against Trustee Dino Bucci that was filed in November at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit. The charges included conspiracy, bribery, embezzlement, extortion, mail fraud and money laundering.

The charges were in connection with Bucci’s work as a trustee for Macomb Township, where he allegedly embezzled nearly $100,000, as well as his position as operational services manager with the Macomb County Department of Public Works.

Bucci retired from the county department in February after a lawsuit was filed by Gianna Investments in 2016 claiming Bucci requested a kickback. The Board of Trustees approved settling that suit in September, paying Gianna Investments around $152,000 for permit fees and interest.

Another contractor, Christopher Sorrentino, of Macomb Township, was the main component of the indictment against Bucci. Sorrentino accepted a plea agreement in October and admitted to paying nearly $100,000 in kickbacks to an unnamed Macomb Township elected official, with Bucci eventually being named in his indictment.

According to the plea, Sorrentino’s business was asked by Bucci to provide a proposal to repave the Macomb Township Hall parking lot in August 2014, with the bid coming in at $254,500. Another company did the work, but Sorrentino’s business was paid by Macomb Township.

Bucci then allegedly told Sorrentino to pay the company that did the work $181,055 and give him the remaining money in cash, with the end amount around $66,000.

The same scheme was allegedly conducted in March 2015 for the Macomb Township Fire Department parking lot, with Sorrentino paying Bucci at least $30,000 in kickbacks.

Bucci was also accused of bribery conspiracy in his position with the county over a nine-year period, including soliciting tens of thousands of dollars from area contractors in the form of cash, checks and gift cards, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tickets to fundraising events and golf outings.

Bucci also allegedly used county-paid officials to plow his, his relatives and his friends’ driveways before county-owned property, as well as doing personal favors, such as driving his child to school.

Each of the nine bribery and embezzlement charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Each of the six mail fraud, extortion and money laundering counts carry a maximum of 20 years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000. The three bribery conspiracy charges each carry a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.

A status conference is scheduled for Bucci’s indictment on Feb. 5.

The Macomb Township Board of Trustees asked Supervisor Janet Dunn to request Bucci resign from his position on the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the board adopted a resolution of censure for Bucci on Dec. 6.

The board can not remove Bucci under Michigan Election Law, as only the governor can remove an elected township officer.

Bucci was the second Macomb Township trustee to be brought up on charges. Ex-Macomb Township Trustee Clifford Freitas was charged with bribery in October 2016, and accepted a plea deal in May.


Questions around new hire, health care

Bucci may have been the biggest and most recent case that led to resident comments of distrust in the township, but another big reason goes back to the beginning of the year.

In January, Macomb Township attorney Thomas Esordi was named the new human resources director, a position that sat vacant since May 2015, as well as in-house legal counsel. Esordi is paid $150,000 annually, making him the the highest paid township employee, but Supervisor Janet Dunn said having him serve in two roles would provide cost savings for the township.

However, in March, former Macomb Township Supervisor Mark Grabow filed a lawsuit alleging the board violated the Open Meetings Act in December 2016 by going into closed session to discuss the terms of Esordi’s contract.

In the suit, Grabow defined it as a “sweetheart” deal without an expiration date and a “just cause” termination policy. Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Diane Druzinski ruled that the board unlawfully hired Essordi as the human resources director, but Essordi has remained in both positions.

Residents voiced displeasure during the May 24 board meeting, where Dunn threatened to use a sheriff to remove individuals who interrupted the meeting.

Several residents also voiced concern throughout the year about trustee health care benefits. A resolution approved in February 2014 gave extensive health care benefits to all board members, as well as retirement benefits for board members who were elected before January 2013 and served for 12 years.

In a 2016 article published by the Macomb Township Chronicle, Bucci said his benefits package totaled $26,000 per year from the township.

Trustee Tim Bussineau had run on restructuring that resolution during the November 2016 election to eliminate the extensive benefits for part-time trustees and had presented a motion to do so in August. However, the vote got delayed before the board denied the motion in September in order to have Esordi take a comprehensive look at all township benefit packages.

The board eventually approved eliminating the part-time trustee health care benefits at the Nov. 8 meeting. The board approved four resolutions that reaffirmed the wages and benefits for the township supervisor, clerk, treasurer, all three deputy positions, trustees, and board and commission members.

The resolution eliminated medical, vision and dental benefits for part-time trustees effective after the approval. That affected Bussineau, Bucci, Roger Krzeminski and Nancy Nevers.

The fully funded benefits have been called “Cadillac health care” by residents, as part-time trustees work about eight hours or less a month, Bussineau said during his original motion in August.


Continued growth

Macomb Township continued to see a lot of growth in 2017, with several new condominium and housing developments approved by the Board of Trustees.

One of the biggest signs of growth was the board approving spending additional money to increase the law enforcement presence in the community in May. Sheriff Anthony Wickersham presented a proposal expressing his desire to increase his department’s presence due to an increase in population and in the business community.

The addition of eight deputies increased the township’s financial responsibility by approximately $1.17 million. The decision was preceded by vocal support from residents at the meeting.

A few of the big development plans approved include a 57-home development near Card and 22 Mile roads, a 66-unit single-family development near Fairchild and 23 Mile roads, and a development near Romeo Plank and 26 Mile roads that will include 27 homes.

Roads were also worked on to accommodate a larger population, most notably on North Avenue between 21 Mile and Hall roads that saw the road expanded from two lanes to five lanes on that stretch.

A right-turn lane was also added at the intersection of North Avenue and 24 Mile Road to handle extra cars.


Local educators head to court

In September, Dakota High School teacher Lydia Johnson was charged with embezzlement after allegedly stealing money brought in by the school’s homecoming dance and another outing.

Chippewa Valley Schools put Johnson on administrative leave in May after the district discovered accounting discrepancies in the school’s activities fund. According to the charges, Johnson oversaw ticket sales for Dakota’s 2016 homecoming dance, as well as a student and parent trip to Camp Tamarack in 2016.

The dance should have brought in nearly $30,000, but Johnson reportedly deposited only $11,000. The camp trip should have brought in $13,000, but Johnson only deposited $500 with the school.

The felony charge carries a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Another local school official, Joseph Sturza, of Macomb Township, was convicted and sentenced in September for sending sexually abusive communications to a student at Austin Catholic High School in 2014. Sturza was the director of admissions at the school when it was in Ray Township. The school has since relocated to Chesterfield Township.

Sturza was convicted of using a computer to conduct the child sexual abuse activity with a 15-year-old boy. The Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office argued in court that Sturza attempted to pressure the student to engage in certain sexual activity and to keep it secret from his parents.

Sturza was sentenced to one year in jail, five years probation and had to register as a sex offender.

In October, a Macomb Township couple was arrested and accused of human trafficking after allegedly housing a 29-year-old woman with mental and physical disabilities in a vacant shed near their home and setting up dates online with several men who paid for sexual services.

Misty George, 30, and Michael Welch, 38, were ordered to undergo a mental evaluation before they stand trial for their alleged crimes.

The two allegedly moved the victim to the shed because she couldn’t afford rent and did not allow her to use the restroom or shower inside the home off of 21 Mile Road. Once the victim left the mobile home park, her family discovered what happened and contacted police.


Safer school zone

An accident that claimed the life of a Dakota High School student in November 2016 led to Chippewa Valley Schools and Macomb Township looking to find ways this year to make the area safer for students and motorist.

The speed limit on Heydenreich Road did not change, but the Chippewa Valley Schools Board of Education received a traffic study in September that lays out plans to make the area safer, including new traffic lights, longer light cycles and a new left-turn lane.

The study was performed by the Transportation Improvement Association and concluded that slowing vehicles down at intersections and working to eliminate backups was a step in the right direction.

The Macomb Township Board of Trustees also approved the purchase and installation of 87 street lights for the area around 21 Mile Road and Heydenreich near the high school during a January meeting.

Township and district residents made several pleas for action during the two months between the accident and the board motion. The lighting plan will cost the township around $73,000 up front, and after three years, the township will pay an estimated $14,000 annually in lamp charges.


School bond fails

Heading into 2017, Chippewa Valley Schools was gearing up for a big $89.9 million bond proposal during the May 2 election. However, 58.6 percent of the nearly 140,000 voters voted against the proposal.

Approximately 52 percent of the proposed funds would have been used for student safety and facility upgrades, including security camera updates, door locks, roofs, parking lots, flooring and mechanical equipment.

Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, R-Macomb Township, launched a campaign in April aimed at defeating the proposal. Drolet listed two main reasons for the proposal to fail — that the district borrowed too much money and that families outside of Clinton and Macomb townships that utilized school of choice would not be obligated to pay for a share of the debt.

Moving forward, Superintendent Ron Roberts said the district’s general fund will be integral in terms of curriculum.

Despite the bond defeat, the district used the first half of the 2017-18 school year to do some collaboration and highlight employee achievements.

The district worked with the Clinton Township fire, police and EMS departments in August to simulate a bus crash, using students to act as injured passengers during the simulation. The demonstration brought out nearly 100 Chippewa Valley bus drivers and staff, and allowed the emergency personnel to practice in case a real accident should happen.

Later in the year, bus driver Jan Reed rallied the district with a Stuff the Bus event in November that collected clothes, coats, boots, toys and other items for district families in need during the holidays.

In September, Chippewa Valley High School Choir Director James Pecar was honored for his work with the autistic community by receiving the Making a Difference Award at the Play-Place for Autistic Children’s third annual awards gala.

Pecar organizes an annual “A Cappella for Autism” concert to raise money for the Macomb/St. Clair Autism Society of America chapter.


Local celebrities

Outside of government and education officials, local people were doing some incredible things throughout 2017.

Chippewa Valley High School graduate Hassan Musselmani used skills he first learned during culinary arts courses at Dakota High School to compete on “Chopped” on Sept. 5 on the Food Network.

Musselmani, who also appeared on the 2016 winter season of “Hell’s Kitchen,” competed against three other food truck chefs for a $10,000 prize. Musselmani ended up missing out on the prize money by finishing second, but said the show helped him build his brand and bring awareness to the food he is cooking at his Drunken Rooster food truck in Detroit and throughout Macomb County.

This fall, Macomb Township resident and author Tony Aued wrapped up his four-book series set in Detroit when he released “Revenge in the Motor City.” The book and series featured Detective Don Frederickson and highlighted several Detroit landmarks.

Aued said he based several characters off people he knows, including Frederickson being based on his ex-neighbor in Detroit who was a police officer. Aued’s book is available on Amazon and at various local bookstores.

In December, Macomb Township resident Lee Burkhart took part in the 96.3 WDVD Cares for Kids Radiothon to talk about her 10-year-old son, Michael Burkhart, and his battle with health issues throughout his entire life, including cerebral palsy.

The event annually benefits Beaumont Children’s Hospital and is done in partnership with the Children’s Miracle Network.

Lee Burkhart said she wanted to use her time during the radiothon to highlight her son and other children with mystery cases.

“We want to make sure everybody understands kids with special needs are miracles and blessing for everyone to see,” she said at the time.