Macomb County parks war rages on, months after millage failed
Washington Township — A township supervisor in Macomb County has set off a war of words and raised concerns with his plan for a parks and recreation department that serves three communities.
At first blush, the sleepy section of Macomb County, best known for its annual Peach Festival, seems an unlikely spot for political squabbles and allegations. But in the past decade, public corruption — both real and imagined — has surfaced in Washington Township, complete with an undercover FBI sting that spread into other communities.
And the clash between long-held agreements and new ideas has sparked tempers and threats serious enough to lead at least one official to wear a sidearm for his protection.
At center of all of this is Washington Township Supervisor Dan O’Leary, who feels his taxpayers are shouldering most of the financial burden of parks programs for their community and two smaller neighbors — Romeo and Bruce Township — without any more say on how funds should be spent.
At a board meeting Wednesday, O’Leary is expected to submit a millage renewal question for the August ballot that would open the door to pulling his township out of the jointly funded Tri-Community Parks and Recreation Commission. Pitched as a renewal, it removes language that would tie the taxes to approval in the surrounding communities.
Critics fear its passage will lead to establishment of a township parks department that will cost more and end strong ties between the three communities.
That follows a millage he promoted on November's ballot to allow Washington Township to buy the Total Sports Park, an athletic complex that includes soccer fields and volleyball courts, for $11.5 million. The 1-mill, 20-year proposal was soundly defeated.
Some of Washington Township’s 24,000 citizens and officials are uncomfortable with the idea of ending the joint parks and recreation district. And with O’Leary.
“The tri-county parks and recreation department has been our identity — it's who we are,” said Peggy DeVos, a Washington Township resident running for township trustee this year. “Why is there a need to change that?"
O’Leary has a history of getting his way. He doesn’t respond well to derision, calling critics “rodeo clowns” during township meetings. His stance: "Romeo and Bruce Township left us, not the other way around."
O'Leary insists he has no intention of abandoning Romeo or Bruce Township, but said in an interview, "we will go off on our own" unless his township gets more of a voting say on the four-member commission, which is split evenly between Washington and Bruce, the latter of which has about 9,300 residents. Romeo, with about 3,600, is split between the townships.
"There has been a concentrated effort by some people to twist my words and create a negative image of me in the community and especially on social media," he said.
A tale of three towns
“There have never been any issues here until recently,” said Clara Russell, director of the commission for 22 years. “But with that millage, and when it failed, I wouldn’t say there is a friendly atmosphere here.”
“... Now it's pretty clear Washington wants to go on its own,” she said. “I don’t know where that leaves everything. But no one can show me how you can start a new parks and rec department and not have it cost more.”
The recreation commission operates two parks in Washington, three in Bruce, and one in Romeo next to a 1957 building on Morton Street that is the parks and recreation’s community center. Facilities at the high school, like the swimming pool, are obtained through the Romeo school district.
Romeo village president Christine Malzahan described O’Leary’s plan as a “huge concern” that has resulted in a “toxic environment.”
“We were blindsided by this,” she said. “The commission was formed 50 years ago for the good of all three communities. There are two board members from each of the townships and everyone has gotten along so well that there never has even been the need for a tie-breaker (vote)."
Bruce Township Supervisor Richard Corey, who represents about 10,000 residents in his township and Romeo, agreed.
“We have been providing services for our residents for 50 years — how could you be doing better?" said Corey, whose past cable TV role and public address duties at Romeo High School games earned him the title “Voice of the Bulldogs.”
“But it appeared Dan didn’t like dealing with Bruce Township, and I think was trying to fix something that wasn’t broke."
Taxpayers in all three communities pay the same 0.75 mills. Washington Township, where home values average about $350,000, provides about 70%, or $1.07 million of the commission’s current budget and the remaining 30%, or $364,528, comes from Bruce Township, where the average home is valued around $225,000.
O’Leary admits he has been at odds with some residents but insists, “I’m not a bully.”
“Yes, I can be loud and I can be blunt and some people are offended by that,” he said. “I’ve looked at tapes of some meetings and am not proud at how I acted all the time. I was dealing with a lot of frustration, and there were things going on behind the scenes that were very stressful that no one knew anything about.
“Yeah, I called people rodeo clowns, but it’s been taken out of context,” he said. “What do rodeo clowns do? The distract the bull from the rider. Some of these people are trying to distract the public from the issues. And that’s a shame."
The sports complex
Part of O’Leary’s plans focused on purchasing the Total Sports complex, a 117,700-square-foot facility where President Donald Trump spoke at a rally in April 2018.
O'Leary was instrumental in construction of the sports facility, which opened six years ago.
In 2013, O’Leary found 200 acres a local dairy farmer was ready to sell, purchased it with township funds at $7,500 an acre and sold 80 acres off for Chris McInally, who built Total Sports. The ambitious facility — known by locals as “The Barn” — expanded to include five storage buildings, five indoor volleyball courts, 24 outdoor soccer fields on 80 acres, one full-sized indoor soccer field, and more.
But Total Sports had been less than a total success, and when rumors surfaced that McInally was ready to sell, O’Leary led an effort to buy the complex. He convinced trustees to put an issue on the November ballot that combined a 0.75-mill renewal with a 0.25-mill increase.
Former state lawmaker David Jaye, a township resident for 28 years and chair of the USATaxfighters group in Macomb County, said he reviewed appraisals that assessed the property's value at $5.4 million — less than half of the proposed $11.5 million purchase price.
Jaye said if voters approved the 20-year millage, it would generate about $30 million with interest, plus an additional $992,892 the township would have to spend in sewer line obligations and a road to the property.
O’Leary maintains the envisioned work was to make 120 acres of township land more attractive to potential developers. He said some township property, purchased for $7,500 an acre, has since sold for $50,000 an acre.
The millage was defeated by a nearly 4-to-1 margin.
Following a closed-door meeting Jan. 22, the township board voted unanimously to have an attorney review proposed ballot language for a 0.75-mill renewal levy on the August 2020 election.
In a subsequent motion, brought by O’Leary — also without public discussion — the board voted 6-1 to authorize an attorney to engage Bruce Township in discussions about the Parks & Recreation Articles and bylaws.
O'Leary said an attorney is talking with Bruce Township about rewriting the agreement and it is possible it might result in a "reconfigured board." O'Leary said he would oppose giving Romeo a separate board seat because the village already has representation through Bruce Township.
The situation, for some, like Khalood Bojanowski, has gotten “ugly.” She said the politics has threatened to turn neighbor against neighbor in an area where “everyone has gotten along for years without fighting.”
“We aren’t rich here,” she said. “I’m a senior and like our community center. It’s nothing special. Just a place to go, maybe knit, and catch up with friends over a coffee and a doughnut. That’s all we want."
“We don’t need some big building,” she said. “When did you see a senior playing basketball or dodgeball? I don’t think he is in touch with what we want or need. Or he doesn’t care."
A center of controversy
The Total Sports facility has become a symbol in the debate over the future of recreation services in the three communities.
It has never had an unconditional certificate of occupancy — something that's routinely required to open doors to the public — and has functioned under temporary approval with a “punch list” of township requirements for operation that has never been completed, despite at least two deadline extensions, since 2016.
O’Leary acknowledges the extensions were unusual but says they resulted from many factors, including the township’s interest in the property.
“If we came down hard on them, it would appear we were trying to leverage our position to buy them out,” he said. “None of the punch list involved safety issues but rather conditions that had to be met on the property — like a sidewalk. But other improvements, like water and sewer, were still under consideration.”
McInally did not respond to emails and phone messages from The News seeking comment.
O’Leary typically faces little opposition, including at board meetings. Trustee Sebastian “Sam” Previti, who will challenge him for the supervisor’s seat later this year, is the only one of the six township officials known to cast a “no” vote on O’Leary plans.
“It's usually everyone against Sam,” DeVos said.
O’Leary accused Previti of voting against the Total Sports acquisition on behalf of an employer seeking to buy the same property.
O’Leary said in addition to the township's interest, a second potential buyer that surfaced has since dropped out of consideration. He said the township no longer has any interest in the Total Sports building and the business is struggling.
Previti did not return numerous phone calls for comment.
O’Leary feels he has been wronged by opponents, including Jaye, who have “filled social media with misinformation.”
“If I said something negative about the library or parks and recreation it came out that ‘O’Leary hates kids,” he said. “What I’m against are backwards, outdated government practices."
O’Leary, a former certified public accountant and one-time controller with DTE Energy Co., said he has been targeted by critics for helping federal investigators root out corruption in Macomb County. He said he had been cooperating with the FBI since 2014.
At the request of federal investigators, he wore a wire to a November 2014 meeting with an engineer, Fazullah Kahn, who handed him $10,000 cash in exchange for receiving township business. Kahn was indicted in September 2017, convicted of four counts of bribery and sentenced last July to 11 years in federal prison.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office acknowledged O’Leary’s role last July in a statement: “The United States Attorney's Office and the FBI wish to acknowledge the extraordinary assistance of Washington Township Supervisor Daniel O'Leary, who brought the criminal conduct to the attention of federal law enforcement and has been a valuable asset to the investigation since its inception.”
O’Leary met with appointees and department heads shortly after taking office in 2008 and announced an ethics policy in which everyone was banned, under threat of losing their jobs, from accepting gifts — from hockey tickets to meals — from anyone attempting to do work for or with the township.
O’Leary said because of his hard-nosed policies, he has been threatened several times — including by one person while they were together having a beer.
“I started carrying a gun, still do, even if I’m jogging,” he said. “I used to drink beer. I don’t drink anymore. I'm careful wherever I go.”