Fraser council votes to oust mayor, councilman

Leonard N. Fleming, and Nicquel Terry

Fraser — The mayor and a councilman were removed from office Monday night by their colleagues following a “tribunal” hearing over allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment of city employees.

Both men, Mayor Joseph Nichols and Councilman Matthew Hemelberg, who did not testify at the hearing that featured five witnesses who testified before council members of sexual harassment, said they will seek refuge in the court system. They remained defiant about the process, calling it a “kangaroo court” with no legitimacy. Both had sought an injunction to halt the proceedings.

Nichols told media following the hearing that he had predicted the outcome.

“It was a kangaroo court,” he said. “The reality is we didn’t get due process. Any other time you take a case to trial when the two star witnesses with the most complaints or allegations don’t show up, typically, that case falls apart. In here, you’ve got a majority that has been against us since we were elected that made up their own rules tonight.”

Hemelberg said “we’re not very surprised by this.”

“You can see credible witnesses that didn’t show up,” he said. “It’s biased.”

Nichols said that the council members were afraid of him and Hemelberg exposing corruption in the city.

Angela Mannarino, the attorney for both the mayor and the councilman who represented them at the hearing, said afterward that “leaving them in office and taking some action against them to say, let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again” would  have been the appropriate move and said Fraser City Manager Wayne "dropped the ball on this."

“... He sat on it for months before he took any action,” she said. “I think that’s a huge issue. I don’t think that removing Mayor Nichols and Councilman Hemelberg is the solution.”

Robert Huth Jr., an attorney, was hired by the city to conduct the hearing and interview five witnesses about the alleged sexual harassment and comments. The council made its decision even though two city workers didn’t testify. Both had claimed they had been sexual harassed, according to a report filed by attorney Thomas L. Fleury, who conducted an independent investigation for the city. Fleury said in his report that seven women alleged they had been subjected to sexual conduct at work.

Councilwoman Yvette Foster made an impassioned plea to take the information under advisement but not remove Nichols and Hemelberg because of insufficient evidence. She blamed some of the women’s supervisors for dropping the ball.

“This could have been handled differently,” Foster said. “My heart goes out to anybody that feels uncomfortable. I’m very sympathetic. I don’t want anybody to work anywhere where they feel threatened or uncomfortable.” But, she said, she’s had plenty “male employees hug me.”

“Now we are taking it upon ourselves, who the residents of Fraser elected on this council, if we like it or not, to remove (an official) … one thing is to feel uncomfortable, but I don’t think we have sufficient evidence.”

When asked why her clients didn’t testify, Mannarino said, “I think it was clear based on everything we knew before this hearing occurred exactly what was going to happen. For them to put themselves in a position where they are going to be attacked, we just decided that it wasn’t enough.”

But Councilwoman Patrice Schornak, who voted to remove Nichols but not Hemelberg because one of his accusers didn’t attend and testify at the hearing, said it was a difficult decision.

“We are here as council to defend the individuals who work for this city,” she said. “And whether or not we think they should have done something, the fact that they didn’t …that doesn’t stop the way that they felt, and we do have to take that under consideration.”

Some residents who attended the meeting applauded the vote.

“This is one of the best things that has happened in Fraser in a long time. It is long overdue,” said Susan Wheeland. “We have a chance to have a new start and get this city going in a new direction. No woman should have to put up with it, over even (a) man, in the workplace, and work in a hostile environment. This is 2017. This is not OK.”

Fleury said the women had devised maneuvers to avoid Nichols and Hemelberg. “These individuals, they didn’t like coming to work,” he said. “If they (the two public officials) were employees, I would have recommended termination.”

Donald Gasiorek, an attorney for Nichols and Hemelberg, said he believes council members who voted on their removal were biased and should have passed the case on to Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.

It’s uncommon for municipal governments to oust elected officials, but most towns have a removal provision for inappropriate behavior, said Clark Andrews, a Sterling Heights-based municipal law attorney. If the provision is outlined in a city charter, then it overrides the voters’ will, Andrews said.

“Ordinarily you don’t remove people because you don’t agree with what they did,” Andrews said. “But if they do something that’s really egregious then there has to be a process to get rid of people.”

Fraser’s city charter calls for a hearing when council members have been accused of misconduct. The council reserves the right to remove that member, according to the charter.

The sexual harassment allegations stem to January, when Fraser City Manager Wayne O’Neal reportedly witnessed Nichols giving city Finance Director Mary Jaganjac a “bear hug” and a kiss on the lips after a council meeting. O’Neal also reported seeing Hemelberg massage the shoulders of Fraser Library director Lorena McDowell.

O’Neal met with McDowell and Jaganac and ordered an independent investigation by Fleury.

Fleury said in a report June 8 that he interviewed the seven female employees, who cited alleged behavior such as the men hugging, kissing, touching and massaging them or making sexual remarks on numerous occasions.

“The behavior was also unwelcome by employees,” Fleury wrote in the report. “... The employees endured the behavior because of fear or retaliation. At no time did the employees encourage or participate voluntarily in such behavior.”

Nichols and Hemelberg, the report said, created a “hostile” work environment.

Gasiorek said Nichols and Hemelberg had no sexual intentions with their conduct toward the women.

“Not one person complained until O’Neal came to them,” Gasiorek said. “They weren’t offended by it.”

He also said there was no evidence of either politician retaliating against the women for reporting the sexual behavior, as alleged in Fleury’s report.

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming