July 8, 2014 at 11:21 am

Metro Detroiters volunteer as cops, get gun law exemption

Oakley— This tiny farm town has a blinking traffic light, a smattering of businesses and more than 100 auxiliary police officers.

The reserves, who aren’t paid, donate enough money to the village to cover the $38,000 police budget and some other government expenses.

Most of the volunteers are well-off residents of Metro Detroit: lawyers, doctors, pro athletes and “maybe” a famous rock musician, said Police Chief Rob Reznick.

He declined to give their identities, saying the publicity could affect their full-time jobs.

Some residents appreciate the help but others wonder why people from Detroit are helping a town in central Michigan.

One possible reason: Their status as police reserves allows them, even off-duty, to bring their guns into no-weapon zones such as bars and ballparks, according to state law.

“It’s pay-to-play and he (Reznick) owns this town,” Nichole Bruff told village trustees during a board meeting in April.

“He is here because you want his money. He is running this city through his donations.”

The village and reserves deny there’s a quid pro quo, that they’re trading donations for looser weapon rules.

Guido Aidenbaum, 54, a West Bloomfield attorney who has donated $2,000 since becoming a reserve in 2011, said he just wants to help a financially struggling community.

“I’m a philanthropic guy who gives money to all kinds of worthy causes,” he said. “We’re not a bunch of goofballs, Barney Fifes carrying badges.”

Worried about the large number of armed volunteers, along with several lawsuits involving the village, the Michigan Municipal League canceled Oakley’s insurance this year.

After a five-month search, the village finally found new coverage last week, said village Clerk Cheryl Bolf.

Even as Oakley dealt with the insurance threat, another Michigan municipality has begun a similar venture.

In March, Waterloo Township in Jackson County hired Reznick as police chief on a six-month trial basis.

The chief, who kept his part-time job in Oakley, has appointed 15 reserves who have donated $55,000 in cash and a $45,000 Chevrolet Tahoe to Waterloo.

“It’s nice to have a few dollars in the bank account of a community hard-pressed for funds,” Waterloo Supervisor Doug Lance said. “There’s not much to go around, and a lot of need.”

Reserves seldom in village

Despite the large number of reserves, they’re rarely seen in Oakley, residents said.

And there’s little reason for them to be.

Surrounded by miles of farmland, the village has 290 residents and little crime.

Looming over the quiet, block-long downtown are two 130-foot-tall concrete silos that store grain.

Trustee Sue Dingo, who supports the reserves, said most of them will never set foot in the village.

“There’s never been 100 policemen in this town,” she said. “Those policemen, probably 95 percent of them, aren’t ever going to come to this town.”

If most of the reserves are rarely used, why does the village need so many?

For emergencies, Reznick said. If something happens, he wants to have enough manpower to handle the crisis.

It would take 90 minutes for a reserve to drive from Metro Detroit to Oakley.

The reserves look like regular police. They have a badge, police ID, gun and uniform.

They don’t have arrest power, mainly assisting the village’s 12 certified police officers, who are all part-time.

“It’s a good program. It’s a clean program,” said Reznick, 55, who earns $500 a month. “Anyone who looks at it will tell you it’s a solid program.”

The Saginaw County Sheriff’s Office, which covers 816 square miles, has 85 reserves.

The nearby Frankenmuth Police Department, which covers the 33 square miles of Frankenmuth Township, has 25 reserves.

'Givers' to the community

The only criteria to join the Oakley force is for prospective reserves to get a concealed pistol license.

Then, when they are sworn in as an auxiliary officer, they qualify for an exemption to Michigan laws that allow them to carry their gun in no-weapon zones such as schools and hospitals.

Reznick said he solicits donations when people apply to be a reserve, but the contributions aren’t mandatory.

In lieu of donations, some auxiliary officers perform services to the community, such as repairing government vehicles, doing electrical work or helping renovate the Village Hall.

The reserves who give money offer $1,000 or $2,000 one-time donations while others give more, said Reznick.

Since the chief’s hiring in 2008, they have donated $150,000, village officials said.

“They all have their own reasons for joining,” Reznick said. “A majority of them are givers, wanting to help an impoverished community.”

It’s not clear why the reserves chose to help Oakley instead of other struggling towns closer to home.

Patrick Raye, who said he became a reserve in 2010 or 2011, declined to say why he chose Oakley.

He also wouldn’t say how often he works in the village or the last time he had done so.

“The focus should be to look at the good we do,” said Raye, 38, chief executive of Hillan Homes, a home builder in Birmingham.

Hams for everyone

The reserves’ donations have been a godsend to Oakley.

Besides making the Police Department self-sufficient the past two years, they bought a $28,000 playground for the village several years ago.

At Christmas, they bought hams and delivered them to every home in the village with a note thanking residents for their support.

Even critics concede the town, with an annual budget of $105,000, would go broke without the contributions.

“What you need to understand is that Rob Reznick does nothing but good for this town,” Dingo said.

The money is a blessing and a curse, said critics.

The village is so dependent on the money it doesn’t properly supervise Reznick and the reserves, they said.

When local bar owner Dennis Bitterman became embroiled in a personal dispute with Reznick in 2012, he said he was told by the village supervisor the village couldn’t act against the chief because of all the money he brought into the town.

“So you’re going to let him run amok because of the almighty dollar?” asked Bitterman’s wife, Shannon.

Supervisor Doug Shindorf, who died from cancer last month, told The Detroit News earlier he never said such a thing.

During a board meeting in 2012, the trustees agreed with a police committee report that found Reznick hadn’t harassed a waitress at the bar, according to meeting minutes.

At the same meeting, the council approved the use of $50,000 in police reserves’ donations to balance the budget, and another $31,600 in donations to help pay the principal for a sewage system bond, according to the minutes.

Insurance canceled

After Reznick became police chief, the Michigan Municipal League expressed concern about the liability of insuring the growing army of armed volunteers.

Reznick told the league not to worry about it.

“I said, ‘That’s great. When you become chief you can decide,’ ” Reznick said. “As long as I’m here, we will have reserves.”

In January, the league told Oakley it wouldn’t renew the insurance when it expired July 1.

Mike Forster, director of risk management services for the league, said the cancellation was caused by a lack of cooperation by the police and the seven lawsuits involving the village.

Bitterman or his wife, Shannon, have filed six suits against Oakley in 15 months. Most involve his beef with Reznick, including an unsuccessful attempt to get the names of the reserves.

The lawsuits have cost the municipal league $180,000 to defend.

“It’s the entire situation at the village,” said Forster. “It’s the lawsuits, and the unwillingness of the council to address the issue, the chief, all of those things combined.”

Oakley officials, whose old insurance was $11,365 a year, said the new coverage would cost slightly more but didn’t want to give specifics until a trustee meeting this week.

Without insurance, the village would have been one lawsuit away from being financially wiped out, residents said.

“It’s a small village that could be gone,” said Dingo’s husband, Ed. “It’s sad, real sad.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com
(313) 223-4186

Guido Aidenbaum, a West Bloomfield attorney, is one of more than 100 ... (Photo provided by Guido Aidenbaum)
Shannon Bitterman, in background, and her husband Dennis have questioned ... (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)