An Oakland County Circuit Court judge has dismissed three of four claims in a declaratory lawsuit filed by three West Bloomfield Township officials — including Supervisor Michelle Economou Ureste — against four fellow township board members, but the case now appears to be headed for the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Last week’s ruling by Judge Rudy J. Nichols came almost three months after Ureste, Trustee Steve Kaplan and Treasurer Teri Weingarden filed the suit to seek a ruling regarding a township policy amendment stating that any board member, and not the supervisor alone, can recommend the termination of a department head and a majority board vote would be needed to carry out the recommendation.
The township, along with Trustees Gary Farber, Howard Rosenberg, Larry Brown, and Clerk Catherine Shaughnessy were named as defendants.
Ureste said she is waiting for the suit to be rendered as a final order and that she will then submit it to the Court of Appeals.
“I think these are more complex matters suited for the Court of Appeals, she said. “They’re intended to go to the next level.”
Kaplan said the judge’s decision is based on his interpretation of state law when applied to the actions of the majority of the township board, and the Court of Appeals will review and apply the law based on its own assessment of the issues.
Kaplan added that he, along with Ureste and Weingarden, are spending their own funds on lawyer fees to pay for the lawsuit, but Rosenberg said the suit has cost township taxpayers up to $12,000 to defend.
In the suit, the plaintiffs argued that only the supervisor can appoint a police chief, citing state statute MCL 42.12, which reads that “the township board in each charter township may provide for and establish a police force and authorize the supervisor to appoint, subject to the approval of the board, a township marshal and such other policemen.”
The policy amendment came into play when the board selected and swore in Lieutenant Michael Patton as the township’s new police chief in place of the retired Ronald Cronin on Oct. 4.
However, Judge Nichols ruled that the language in the statute is discretionary and doesn’t state that the authorization of the supervisor to appoint is mandatory or exclusive.
Nichols also pointed out that the township’s ordinance code states that the police chief shall be appointed by the township board.
The plaintiffs also argued in the suit that the supervisor has the authority to terminate employees without the consent and approval of the township board. They argued that the township’s amended policy is contrary to state statute MCL 42.10 regarding a personnel director’s duties and responsibilities.
Ureste said the new policy provides insecurities for township employees, with the seven board members ultimately serving as their seven bosses.
However, Nichols ruled that those sections of the statute don’t state that a supervisor has the sole authority to terminate a department head and that the plaintiffs cited no legal authority in support of their argument.
The three plaintiffs also protested in the suit against a July 2009 decision by the township board to form a labor committee consisting of Brown, Farber and Rosenberg to negotiate union contracts.
Ureste, Kaplan and Weingarden argued that through state law MCL 42.10, a supervisor has the authority to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement prior to the approval of the township board.
Nichols ruled that the sections cited by the plaintiffs don’t refer to collective bargaining agreements and that they couldn’t support their argument.
The judge didn’t dismiss the fourth claim by the plaintiffs, who argued against Brown having his $125 township board meeting stipend directed to a Township Water Benevolent Fund to help needy township families pay their water bills.
The plaintiffs cited state statute MCL 42.6, which states that a township official’s salary shall not be decreased during an official’s term of office as long as that person’s responsibilities are not diminished or unless the official consents in writing to the reduction.
They also contended that Brown hasn’t received a W-2 tax form or a Form 1099 tax form reflecting payment for each meeting.
Nichols wrote in his opinion that the plaintiffs’ request for declaratory relief in regards to this issue is proper, that relief may be granted, and that the donation of pay to a township fund isn’t proper under the authority presented by the plaintiffs.
Karen Geibel, a judicial staff attorney for Nichols, said that the fourth issue is still technically open and may require further briefing from both parties. It may be decided by another motion because the judge didn’t make a legal determination on the plaintiffs’ request for a declaratory judgment.