Cottrellville Township’s upheaval persists

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Cottrellville Township — Who’s in charge? Who’s on first? In this volatile township, it depends on the month.

Two of the five township board members resigned last month. Two others were recalled in November. In April, all five members of the Parks and Recreation Committee resigned en masse.

Nor does the squabbling end after officials leave.

In May, a recalled trustee won a three-year legal fight against a recalled supervisor, Kelly Fiscelli, who was held liable by a judge for violating the state Open Meetings Act in 2013.

“The board just can’t get it together,” said retiree Patricia Pierce.

The upheaval isn’t anything new in the St. Clair County community 40 miles northeast of Detroit. The News last fall detailed the political rancor in the township where residents say beefs tend to be personal and not easily forgiven.

Recalls have outnumbered regular elections in recent years. A board member serving a full, four-year term is a rare feat.

Township board meetings have actually settled down since the recall of Fiscelli and township Clerk Lori Russelburg in November, residents said.

Matt and Patty Kovalcik, the two board members who resigned recently, got along famously with the rest of the board, said officials.

The reason for their departure? They found their dream home in nearby East China Township, said officials.

“We’re going to miss them, I tell ya,” said township supervisor Mary Agnes Simons, who replaced Fiscelli. “Between the two of them, they were a good pair.”

While the Kovalciks’ farewell was amicable, it continued a worrisome trend. The township is beset by a lack of continuity among its elected leaders, said residents.

With the resignation of Patty Kovalcik, Cottrellville is looking for its third treasurer in a year.

Both Kovalciks, who couldn’t be reached for comment, were midterm replacements who failed to finish partial terms.

Patty was appointed treasurer in June 2015 while Matt won a recall election in November 2014. Their terms were scheduled to end in November.

Two of the three remaining board members, Simons and clerk Angie Viola, have been in office for eight months. Trustee Ken Chartier was elected in 2012.

“There’s still a lot that needs to be done,” said resident Sue Biscorner, who attends the board’s monthly meetings. “Hopefully they can get it together.”

Animosity reached courts

Another trend that troubles residents is board members moving out of the township.

Besides the Kovalciks, then-treasurer Sandy Keais resigned last year after it was discovered she had moved to St. Clair city, and Fiscelli twice moved out of the township during her three-year stint as supervisor.

None of that is likely to make the Chamber of Commerce brochure touting the township. While things simmered down at City Hall this year, they remained heated at the courthouse.

Former trustee Mike Zoran, who was recalled in 2014, continued to pursue his lawsuit against Fiscelli.

Zoran had supported Fiscelli during her 2012 election, putting up 270 campaign signs, but turned against her when she failed to support his bid to get rid of the township attorney, he said.

“Fiscelli is a perfect example of the concept ‘something given has no value,’ ” Zoran told The Detroit News last week. “We gave everything to Fiscelli, and she didn’t appreciate it.”

The lawsuit stemmed from a 2013 board meeting where Zoran was speaking and Fiscelli cut him off before his allotted three minutes were up. She did the same to two Zoran supporters who, like Zoran, were criticizing Fiscelli.

They sued Fiscelli for violating the Open Meetings Act and, in May, Circuit Judge Michael West sided with them, saying he didn’t believe Fiscelli’s testimony that she was mostly unfamiliar with the law.

“Fiscelli’s actions at the very least are ill-informed and unprofessional and, at the worst, discriminatory and a suppression of free speech,” said West.

He awarded Zoran and the two supporters — Austin Adams and Kyle Sunday — $250 apiece and ordered Fiscelli to pay their legal fees, which haven’t been determined yet.

“In the end the truth always wins,” said Adams.

During the lawsuit Zoran learned Fiscelli was living outside the township, so he pursued a rarely used legal tactic to oust her from office. The writ of quo warranto challenges a person’s legal right to hold office.

When Fiscelli was recalled in November, the issue became moot, said West.

But Zoran wasn’t done. He wanted Fiscelli to repay her salary, benefits and mileage reimbursement for the period she was supervisor and living outside the township.

The judge demurred.

Fiscelli couldn’t be reached for comment.

He said, she said

As for the parks and recreation committee, members had been unhappy with a perceived lack of support from Fiscelli and hoped things would change with the new supervisor in November.

But committee chairman Tony Spatafore said Simons refused to meet with him several times to discuss the panel’s projects.

In disgust, Spatafore handed the board the resignations of all five committee members in April. Spatafore also resigned his part-time job as parks maintenance worker.

“We won’t go through this no more,” he told The Detroit News. “I was tired of tearing my hair out. I might as well talk to the wall.”

But Simons said she asked Spatafore several times for a budget and he never supplied one.

She said Spatafore didn’t want the board to have any say on how the committee’s money would be spent.

“They need to understand how government has to work,” she said, “and I’m too old to teach them.”

Things may heat up again as the township gets closer to November.

All five board positions are up for grabs. So far, Simons and Viola are the only candidates.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell