Tranquil Cottrellville is anything but in township hall
Cottrellville Township — In this rural community north of Algonac, political careers tend to be nasty, brutish and short.
The township supervisor and clerk are facing recalls. The treasurer resigned in June. A trustee was recalled last year. Residents tried to remove the entire five-member board in 2007.
Recalls seem to outnumber regular elections. A trustee elected during a recall last year is running for supervisor as part of a recall in November.
As the bodies pile up, residents are looking for more.
Mike Zoran, the trustee recalled last year, has sought information about his critics by secretly taping conversations and hiring a private investigator, he said. He also proudly admits to posting a video online of the supervisor’s arrest and booking for drunken driving.
Other residents are equally upset.
“Township Hall is one big mess, from the top person to the bottom,” said Tammy McGuire, co-leader of the recall against Supervisor Kelly Fiscelli. “It’s terrible for such a small community to have this much trouble.”
Politics in this St. Clair County community is a virtual gunfight, where elected officials supply their enemies with lots of bullets, said residents.
When Fiscelli was arrested in February, she had a blood-alcohol rate of 0.28, three-and-a-half times the legal limit, according to police. She pleaded guilty to drunken driving and served 48 days in jail.
She also moved out of the township, which may render her ineligible for office. Sandy Keais, the treasurer who resigned in June, did so after it was discovered she, too, lived elsewhere.
Fiscelli, who moved to nearby Marine City in April and is registered to vote there, can’t vote in her own recall election in November.
To replace Keais, the board appointed Patty Kovalcik, the wife of trustee Matt Kovalcik. She has no bookkeeping training; two other candidates had a combined 73 years of experience, according to their applications.
“What kind of experience is that? None,” said resident Sue Gadwell, who was not a candidate. “And it’s going to cost residents money to train her.”
The perpetual agitation in the township contrasts with its tranquil setting.
The community, 40 miles northeast of Detroit, sits along the St. Clair River and near Lake St. Clair. The 3,800 residents are scattered over 22 square miles.
Like other small towns, everyone knows each other, and their personal disagreements sometimes find their way to the board.
“Our township is out for blood,” said resident Michele Wallace. “People pick apart everyone’s words to their own liking.”
Ally turned on supervisor
One of the personal beefs involved Zoran, who complained about noise and clutter in his neighbor’s yard in 2011.
When township attorney John McNamee said there was little that could be done, Zoran ran for trustee the following year. During the campaign, he also supported Fiscelli for supervisor, putting up 270 signs for her, he said.
They were both elected, but when Fiscelli refused to fire McNamee, Zoran turned on her. He frequently interrupted board meetings to lambaste her.
She told a local reporter Zoran was like a high school student whose crush wasn’t returned.
Zoran, 36, scoffed at the suggestion last week, saying he’s been on just 11 dates in his life.
“If there’s no chance of marrying, there’s no point in going out with it,” he said at his home.
Zoran’s mother, Caroline, who lives with him, also had harsh words for Fiscelli.
“She’s a narcissist,” she said. “He wouldn’t spit on the best part of her.”
Over six months, Zoran was censured by the board five times, mostly for violating a new rule that prohibited videotaping before and after board meetings and required the camera to be in the back of the room.
Zoran’s refusal to follow the rule — its legality is questioned by First Amendment attorneys — led to the postponement of one meeting and the adjournment of another after two minutes.
In August 2013, the meeting was delayed 45 minutes when Fiscelli called the Sheriff’s Office to complain that Zoran was videotaping people at Township Hall.
During the commotion, in which Zoran’s cameraman left and a deputy arrived, the epileptic Zoran suffered a seizure and was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital.
“He is pure evil,” resident Barb Basney said about Zoran, whom she has criticized for looking into the background of his enemies. “If you don’t agree with him, you are his enemy.”
In response to Zoran’s outbursts, the board eliminated the part of meetings reserved for members’ comments. Instead, Zoran spoke during the public comments section, joining other residents at a podium in front of the board.
He was criticizing Fiscelli from the podium in 2013 when she cut him off before his allotted three minutes were up. She did the same to two Zoran backers.
They sued the township, which was found guilty of violating the state Open Meetings Act. The township was required to pay their legal fees of $8,000.
“My primary reason for claiming it’s my right to publicly record is because it’s my right to publicly record,” said Zoran.
Residents also turned against Zoran.
At a 2013 board meeting, a 72-year-old man standing next to Zoran’s 18-year-old cameraman shook his bag of popcorn whenever Zoran spoke, drowning out his voice, according to the video.
Zoran frequently railed about being opposed by good old boys so a group of residents began attending meetings in T-shirts that read “Good Ole’ Boys.”
Zoran was recalled by a 2-1 margin in November after two years in office.
Stressful night led to drinks
With Zoran gone, some residents focused on Fiscelli.
They were unhappy she supported the purchase of some riverfront land for a park. They became unhappier this year when the improper disposal of asbestos-containing cabins at the site raised cleanup costs to $73,000, according to township records.
After a stressful monthly board meeting in February, where her stance on the park was criticized by residents, Fiscelli, 46, went to a bar where she drank two glasses of whiskey and three 22-ounce beers, said her attorney, Steve Simasko.
A bar patron offered to drive her home before 1 a.m. and, when she refused, he called the Clay Township police, describing her car and the direction it was headed, according to a police report.
After watching Fiscelli drive on the wrong side of the road, an officer pulled her over.
Fiscelli said the board meeting that month had been stressful as residents continued to criticize her about the riverfront park.
“This should not be how it is for a politician, being run through the mill,” she said.
But the judge who sentenced Fiscelli said her drinking problems started long before then.
72nd District Judge Cynthia Platzer in Marine City said Fiscelli had several earlier driving infractions that were “absolute warnings,” according to a transcript of the sentencing.
“That’s somebody that’s going to make a lot of lousy decisions. This one is huge,” said the judge.
In 2006, she was charged with failing to stop at the scene of a collision, according to court records. The charge was dismissed as she pleaded guilty to careless driving.
In 2013, Marine City police found a car that had run off the road and struck a utility pole.
Fiscelli later came to the Police Department, saying she owned the car and had lost control of it while shopping during a snowstorm.
Sgt. James VanderMeulen asked Fiscelli several times why she would buy groceries during such inclement weather after midnight and couldn’t get a good answer, he wrote in a police report.
Fiscelli received a suspended 20-day sentence after pleading guilty to failing to report an accident and making a false statement on her driver’s license.
The false statement was her address, which turned out to be an empty lot in the township. She was actually living in Marine City.
Fiscelli said she was going to build a home on the lot but the plans were scuttled when she and her husband were divorced.
Resident Cindy Salmon said Fiscelli’s actions make her unfit for office.
“How about someone who actually lives in the township and hasn’t been in jail lately? Is that asking too much?” said Salmon.
Fiscelli moved out of the township in February 2013, three months after her election.
She said she put her home up for sale, and when it sold faster than expected, she couldn’t immediately find a place in the community, so she moved to Marine City. She moved back into the township five months later.
Fiscelli moved out of the community again in April because the apartment wasn’t suitable for her son, who was in an accident that left him with brain trauma and impaired vision.
She said she is looking for another place in the township.
When Zoran filed his lawsuit about the Open Meetings Act violations in 2013, he asked the judge to remove Fiscelli as supervisor because she didn’t live in the township.
Circuit Judge Michael West declined to address the issue but Zoran appealed the decision and the Michigan Court of Appeals, in a ruling last month, said West should consider Zoran’s request.
So, even if Fiscelli survives the recall in November, she could be removed from office by West.
Battles over clerk job persist
The clerk’s job, meanwhile, has long been a war between two women.
Lori Russelburg became clerk in 2007 after she helped lead a recall of former clerk Vi Pfaff.
Residents were upset Pfaff and the rest of the board had built water lines to allow the township to receive water service from Marine City. They wanted to save money by continuing to use wells.
Pfaff won the job back by defeating Russelburg in the general election in 2008 and Russelburg returned the favor in 2012.
Pfaff isn’t interested in running again but convinced one of her neighbors to run against Russelburg in the November recall.
“I don’t need the headache. I’m going to turn 80 this year,” Pfaff said.
She said Russelburg has made a shambles of the clerk’s office, but Russelburg said she inherited the mess from Pfaff.
The clerk and former clerk said policy manuals are missing, papers are in the wrong files and documents are kept haphazardly in boxes piled on the floor.
Russelburg said she has to search the entire office to find a document.
“I’m not stealing money, not stealing township’s whatever,” she said. “I’m trying to do the best job I can legally with what I have.”
In Cottrellville Township, personal battles rarely stay personal.
Russelburg doesn’t feel Fiscelli should lose her position for living outside the township but, when she learned Keais lived elsewhere, she pushed for Keais’ removal.
In December, she reported Keais’ residency to the Michigan Department of State and asked the agency to write a letter declaring the position vacated. She also asked whether the board had the power to remove Keais.
During the board meeting that month, Russelburg raised the issue of Keais’ residency, cited state laws about the matter and provided a newspaper clipping that showed how Keais’ son was eager to run track for the high school in their new city, St. Clair.
Keais said during the meeting she had no intention of resigning.
“It’s my intent to move back and, as soon as I can, I will. And that’s all that you need to know,” she frostily told Russelburg, according to minutes of the meeting.
Russelburg said the Keais’ residency issue was different from Fiscelli’s because Fiscelli was forced to move and Keais moved voluntarily.
Keais moved out of the township in 2014 after she and her husband divorced.
Another possible reason for Russelburg’s stance: Keais is a supporter of Pfaff’s.