An Oakland County Circuit Court judge has dismissed the fourth and final claim in a declaratory lawsuit filed by West Bloomfield Township Supervisor Michele Economou Ureste and Trustee Steve Kaplan against the township.
On Wednesday, April 13, Judge Rudy J. Nichols ruled against the plaintiffs’ challenge against Township Trustee Larry 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.
Township Trustees Gene Farber and Howard Rosenberg also each contribute 10 percent of their meeting stipend to the benevolent fund.
In a Jan. 4 ruling in the case, Nichols agreed to consider the plaintiffs’ request for declaratory relief on the stipend issue.
However, after hearing final arguments on April 13, Nichols stated in his final opinion that “any issues that remain appear to be political in nature,” and that the plaintiffs failed to provide any legal authority to allow the court to declare that a trustee must accept the stipend and be subject to the preparation and signing of income tax forms.
Nichols added that MCL 42.6 is discretionary and “an alternative procedure for determining salaries,” and that the decision to accept the meeting pay is up to the trustee alone.
This ruling followed Nichols’ Jan. 4 order that dismissed three other requests for declaratory relief sought by Ureste and Kaplan regarding the supervisor’s role in appointing a police chief, terminating a department head, and negotiating a collective bargaining agreement prior to the approval of the township board.
Despite Nichols saying that he believes an appeal would be a waste of time and money, Ureste has said she plans to appeal the rulings in the Michigan Court of Appeals once the final order is issued.
“I’m disappointed (Judge Nichols) reversed his decision,” Ureste said. “It’s awfully difficult to do my job if the legal system doesn’t back me up. I believe the Court of Appeals will rule that income cannot be diverted. I need to know what the law says because the board keeps pushing the envelope and encroaching upon my authority.”
Kaplan said it’s a common sense proposition that a person must pay taxes on income earned.
Brown said that he was pleased that he could continue to help township residents with economic problems.
“I’m happy all the allegations over the past year and a half have been dismissed and I’ve been found innocent,” Brown said.
Farber and Rosenberg also said they are pleased with the final ruling, stating that they consulted with the township attorney before diverting their meeting stipends to the benevolent fund.
“It was validated by the court,” Rosenberg said. “Hopefully we can stop spending taxpayer money on descending, baseless lawsuits.”
According to Township Clerk Cathy Shaughnessy, the township has spent over $21,000 in legal fees as of December defending against the lawsuit.
Ureste said she used $5,000 of her own funds to seek the declaratory rulings.