Speaking limits add fuel to the fire in Shelby meetings

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Shelby Township — A sign on the wall of the meeting room for the Shelby Township Board of Trustees describes how the board has improved government transparency.

After recent meetings, the placard may begin showing the Marquess of Queensberry rules for boxing.

A September decision to reduce the public’s speaking time from five minutes to three minutes has turned the twice-monthly meetings into donnybrooks.

Regular attendees who once spoke about agenda items now focus on the board, making up for the time loss with umbrage. For three minutes, and not a second less, they lambaste the trustees, who sometime return volley.

“That gavel is going to leave an ugly mark on your forehead when someone shoves it up your butt,” resident Dan Boris said after Supervisor Rick Stathakis banged him out of order.

Contrasts at the meetings are jarring. One minute, board members are announcing benign events like “Families and Jammies.” The next, the trustees are being accused of being crooks, drunks and marital cheaters. They’re labeled communists, Nazis and — even worse in the Republican township — Democrats.

The vitriol includes obscene gestures and strings of profanities, according to meetings attended by The Detroit News and others viewed on tape. Meetings are recessed and residents ousted. The confabs are a cross between a UFC cage match and the bitter politics roiling Washington.

It all makes for riveting viewing on the normally staid public-access television channel that broadcasts the meetings. But not even the TV audience is safe.

Ron Churchill, a frequent speaker, said TV viewers should be ashamed for not attending the meetings to register their discontent over the time limit.

“You people out there are truly pathetic,” he said during a September meeting. “How stupid can you people be?”

But residents said they don’t want to be anywhere near such churlishness.

Leo Levy said it’s unseemly for people to be yelling from their seats and making personal attacks.

“This talking about people’s personal lives, it’s ridiculous,” he told The News.

The three-minute limit is similar to most towns in Metro Detroit, according to a survey by The News.

Shelby Township hoped the reduced time would encourage residents to attend meetings by not forcing them to sit through long-winded comments, said Trustee Doug Wozniak, who proposed the move. But the audiences have remained the same size since the change, residents said. Wozniak also hoped the change would prevent meetings from turning into circuses. Despite the recent outbursts, he said he thought it was being accomplished.

“The personal attacks seem outside the realm of doing business, but you get that with every council,” he told The News.

The meetings, held at township hall, have drawn between 27 and 43 people the last four sessions. The same five or six residents speak at most meetings. The regulars, mostly retirees who sit behind each other at the end of their rows, are lined up like an attack formation. Then, after an opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, they pounce to the podium.

They get two chances to speak, near the start of the meeting and near the end. The first is supposed to be limited to agenda items, but the gadflies continue to bemoan the time limit.

In December, resident Clarence Cook, 78, compared himself and other gadflies to terrorists. He said the time limit was an overreaction to the wordiness of speakers just as the abridgment of civil liberties in some countries was an overreaction to terrorism.

“This is gonna go on and on and on,” he said during the Dec. 21 meeting. “We’re not going to give up after one or two weeks.”

Stathakis, who runs the meetings, told Cook he was out of order because the time limit wasn’t on the agenda.

“I’m out of order? You’re out of order,” cried Cook.

Things usually settle down as public comment ends and the trustees discuss agenda items among themselves. The floor is then opened back up to the public, and the blitzkrieg resumes.

Tom Turner, 80, clutching a black binder listing township expenses, normally harangues the board about its spending. But he’s on a new mission. Turner told the trustees last month they reduced the time so they could go home sooner. The 11 meetings since the change have been an average of 10 minutes shorter than the 11 preceding it, from 114 minutes to 104, according to a review by The News.

But the meetings weren’t for the board’s convenience, Turner said. They were for the public.

“Boy, you are a sorry bunch of elected officials,” he said. “You’re getting more and more socialist. You’re as bad as the socialist, communist Utica school board.”

Instead of limiting his remarks to public comment parts of the meeting, Turner decided he wanted to speak after every agenda item during the March 21 meeting.

Item after item, he waved his hand from the audience but Stathakis ignored him. When the supervisor asked the board if they had any questions about one item, Turner shouted out, “I have a question.”

Another resident jumped into the fray, saying he had a point of order, which is a parliamentary procedure available only to board members. He, too, was ignored.

The residents sometimes turn against each other.

After Churchill was criticized by a resident for repeatedly exceeding the three-minute limit, he returned fire at the following meeting, calling his critic “the fruitcake from the land of fruits and nuts — California.”

The board usually takes its biweekly drubbing with good grace, sometimes even humor.

When a resident gave the trustees a rare compliment in February, Stathakis turned to the TV camera.

“Did you get the part about we were doing a good job?” he asked.

Among those in the audience are young people who attend for projects related to school or other organizations. During a March 7 meeting, Boy Scout David Rider, 16, sat in the middle of the room. He was fulfilling a requirement to receive his merit badge, citizenship in the community.

Accompanied by his mother, Rider watched as a resident who refused to stop speaking was escorted out of the meeting by the deputy police chief.

“It got a little crazier than I expected,” he said afterward.

He said he had told his mom he had expected the meeting to be a bore fest.

Some of the fireworks are a carryover from a nasty election campaign.

Grant Golasa ran for trustee last year but finished sixth among seven candidates. The top four finishers joined the board.

Golasa, 24, who wasn’t supported by several board members, told the trustees in December they hadn’t heard the last of him. He vowed to make their next four years a nightmare.

Speaking quickly during the Dec. 7 meeting, the smiling Golasa said he had collected 1,500 documents that showed corruption by the board.

“The feds have made their list. They’ve checked it twice,” he said about an ongoing federal investigation in Macomb County. “They already know who’s been naughty and nice.”

Golasa asked Stathakis if he had ever cheated on his wife and, if the supervisor lied, he would release photos from a red folder he was holding.

Stathakis told him to go ahead and release the photos, he hadn’t had an affair. The purported photos remained in the folder.

At the following Dec. 21 meeting, Golasa trained his sights on township Treasurer Mike Flynn.

Swapping the red folder for a yellow one with giant initials, M.F., he began pulling photos from it: Flynn drinking on a boat, Flynn drinking at a Tigers’ game, Flynn drinking at a township park. He said he had reviewed Flynn’s divorce file and accused him of living off his ex-wife’s pension. He told Flynn he never had a real job and that his fiancée would never marry him.

After Golasa attacked Flynn again at the Jan. 17 meeting, the treasurer had had enough. Despite entreaties by Stathakis to ignore the remarks, Flynn laced into his persecutor.

“I get it: He saw my Facebook page,” Flynn said. “This young man and his father are stalkers. I think I gave him a beer before he decided he wanted to sell out all of his principles.”

Churchill, 60, a tool and dye worker, seems freshly aggrieved by the time limit every meeting. He discusses it during the period reserved for agenda items, talks over Stathakis, continues the tirade from his seat and once told the supervisor to do something anatomically impossible with the gavel.

Then, on April 4, Stathakis stopped the meeting and ordered the TV cameras off when Golasa refused to stop attacking Flynn.

“You can’t take the heat, can you?” Turner bellowed from the audience. “Why don’t you put this on camera, you yellow-bellied chicken.”

Churchill also criticized Stathakis and was promptly kicked out of the meeting. The supervisor had warned him after an outburst earlier that evening.

“Tom said it, too,” Churchill protested. “I’m not saying anything. I (had) quit.”

When Churchill refused to leave, Deputy Police Chief Mark Coil said he could be arrested. When Churchill still didn’t move, Coil radioed for help and four officers walked into the meeting room. With the officers waiting, the sitting Churchill was surrounded by five other gadflies and township officials pleading for him to leave. The emotional Churchill began to pray aloud.

“God, please give me strength,” he said. “In Jesus’ name, don’t let them touch me, I pray.”

After 10 minutes, he relented and left. He wasn’t arrested.

With Churchill gone, the TV cameras were turned back on and the meeting resumed. Shelby Township was back in business.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell