Conflict between supervisor, 2 trustees roils Royal Oak Twp.
Royal Oak Township — Two trustees say the township supervisor acts like a "dictator" and want the state to intervene. The supervisor, who survived a recall attempt last year, says they are "trying to muddy my name."
Welcome to politics in Royal Oak Township, a small Oakland County community bordering Detroit that has no police force, fire department or post office — but does have a history of budget turmoil.
Two of the community's elected trustees, Karen Ballard and Jollie Dixon, asked the Michigan Department of Treasury and the Attorney General’s Office last month to conduct a forensic audit, alleging that supervisor Donna Squalls has misappropriated funds, overstepped her authority and neglected her duties while running an illegal convenience store from her garage.
“It’s all false and there is no basis,” Squalls said. “I hope they get that audit — I may ask for one myself — because it will prove I have not done anything wrong."
One of the poorest communities in Metro Detroit, Royal Oak Township has seen its population drop by nearly half since 2000, to about 2,600, according to a 2017 Census Bureau estimate.
Median household income is $26,406, less than half of the statewide figure, while budget troubles forced the township to operate under a consent agreement with the state from 2014 to 2017.
In a Nov. 13 letter to the state agencies, Ballard and Dixon said Squalls “operates like a self-appointed dictator in the dark” and listed numerous areas they want officials to investigate:
• Ballard and Dixon alleged a $50,000 grant from the Treasury Department in March 2017 was not used for a water delivery rehabilitation project as intended and Squalls “has not explained where these funds have gone.”
•The two trustees question the expenditure of more than $219,000 from a $1 million township police fund during the past three years, a period when patrol and other services have been provided for free by Michigan State Police.
• Ballard and Dixon allege Squalls engineered the firing of a township manager, Tony DeBardelaben, in October after the official told the supervisor he worked for the trustees, not her. DeBardelaben could not be reached for comment.
• The letter alleges that to fight the recall petition against her, Squalls used the township attorney to represent her and either told him to bill the township or coerced him into providing service for free.
• The pair allege Squalls failed to fulfill office hours to her elected post, working instead at an “illegal convenience store” in her garage, selling tobacco products, lottery tickets and more.
Neither Ballard nor Dixon responded to requests for comment.
Squalls said she was "hurt" when she first heard of the letter and then became angry.
“Next year is an election year and this is just an attempt to muddy my name,” she said. “They have a target on me.”
Squalls insists she has not been involved in the township’s finances or hired lawyers with township funds. She said the firing of the manager — another flash point for her critics — was made by a majority vote of the township board.
“I am paid only $20,000 a year,” she said. “Who can live on that? I have to work another job (at the store) and put in my hours here at night.
“As far as being an illegal store, my father built it for my mother 71 years ago,” Squalls said. “And many people, including Karen Ballard, have grown up shopping there.”
Squalls is completing her second term as township supervisor after two terms as a trustee.
Two other township trustees said they were familiar with some of the concerns raised in the letter but did not sign it.
"I suspect all of these things can be explained and the township's finances are in good order," said Trustee Richard Miles. "The state award was used appropriately and the only money we may have taken out of the police fund would be to pay for extra state police for events, like the fireworks, for public safety.
"You aren't going to hear me say anything bad about any members of our board," he said. "That's just not me."
Trustee Kim Tillery said she was never asked to sign the letter but has discussed some similar concerns with Squalls and other board members.
Tillery also said some of the people raising questions have been around long enough to "have blown the whistle years ago."
"I knew we got a state grant but I figured it was being held until this coming spring before it would be used towards anything," she said. "But when I came in, I let people know where I stood. And if I smell a rat, I made it clear I would say something."
As for Squalls, "I have never understood who sets her hours and when she keeps them," Tillery said. "I know there have been weeks when she hasn't been in the office and that's not right. As taxpayers, we pay her salary.
"I know she has said she has to take care of her mother and run their store but that's really on her," Tillery said. "If she couldn't put in the time, then she should have never run for the office.
"I would like us to have an independent audit and would like them to go back five years," she said. "I was going to ask for one myself."
Two state offices confirmed they have received the letter but no action has been taken on it.
“We received the request,” said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office. “Our practice is to refer requests for audits to the Department of Treasury, which has accountants on staff skilled in this type of work. Following that, if there are indications of criminal conduct, we contact Michigan State Police to investigate.”
Ron Leix, a spokesman for the Department of Treasury, said the office is “reviewing the letter” from Ballard and Dixon. “Generally speaking, we do occasionally receive requests from local units of government for the state to conduct an audit," Leix said.
Local units of government are required to submit an audit to the state Treasury Department within six months after their fiscal year ends.
“These audits are typically done by accounting firms contracted by the entity,” Leix said.
Squalls maintained the township has complied with the audit requirement and “we are 100% funded and in the best shape we have been in years."
“If she (Ballard) was a good trustee, she would know that.”