Royal Oak rejects veterans' petition for vote to halt memorial move

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

A petition seeking a citywide vote on Royal Oak's plans to move a veterans memorial has been rejected as "legally insufficient," a city official told organizers this week.

City officials want to move the Royal Oak Veterans Memorial 40 feet from its current location south of the public library to expand paved areas for walking as part of a planned park known as Centennial Commons. 

Chris Templeton, from right, VFW Post 1669, Frank Flores, VFW Post 1340, Gerald Gorski, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Council, 2019-2023, and Jim Muys, VFW Post 334 at the Royal Oak Veteran's Memorial in Royal Oak on Friday, January 8, 2020.

City clerk Melanie Halas sent one of the petition drive's organizers, Edward Burkhardt, emails on April 21 and May 4 indicating that enough of the 1,000 signatures on the petitions were valid to put the issue on the November ballot.

But later Tuesday, Halas sent another email to Burkhardt saying that interim city attorney Ann McClorey McLaughlin had found the veterans' petition to be invalid.

"Dear Save the Veterans Memorial," Halas' email to Burkhardt began. "I have received your petition for a proposed ordinance entitled "Initiation of Proposed Ordinance Preserving and Protecting the Royal Oak Veterans War Memorial."

"This letter is to notify you that upon advice of the Interim City Attorney for the City of Royal Oak I must reject your petition. The petition is legally insufficient and fails to satisfy the requirements for an initiatory petition ..."

A two-page legal opinion, written by McClorey McLaughlin, cited the Home Rule City Act state law that ballot initiatives must be strictly legislative in nature, not administrative.

McLaughlin also characterized the petition as misleading in descriptions on its front and back; said it failed to inform voters the proposal would repeal and replace an existing city ordinance; included organizations that were not the initial sponsor of the proposal; that some signers had addresses outside the city or had signed more than once; and that state law prohibits adopting an ordinance that would impair existing obligations or contracts agreed by the city and involving considerable expense.

“We’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, especially this week,” said Burkhardt, commander of the Frank Wendland American Legion Post 253 in Royal Oak. “We thought we had succeeded and done everything the way it was supposed to have been done but now they say ‘no.’ 

“I feel there had been some trickery and games going on here,” he said. “We are reaching out to some of our other service organizations and exploring our options on what to do next. But one thing certain is we are opposed to what they are doing and they don’t like it. Why not let the people decide?"

Burkhardt said one of the post's representatives was recently denied a permit to sell paper poppies on the street — the American Legion’s annual effort for decades to raise funds for its programs, including purchasing new flags used to decorate veterans’ graves.

“They said the permit was being denied because of COVID but nothing like that has happened before,” he said. “They didn’t use that as an excuse to stop commissioners from getting petitions to run for office recently. The didn’t use it to stop us from collecting signatures recently.

"But then they just ignored the signatures,” he said.

Halas has repeatedly declined to discuss the issue with The Detroit News and this week again had her assistant clerk transfer calls to the city attorney, who did not return a call Wednesday for comment.

City Manager Paul Brake, who previously had said the memorial would be moved regardless of opposition, declined to comment beyond Halas' emailed statement.

City commissioners Sharlan Douglas, Brandon Kolo and Melanie Macey did not immediately respond to voicemail messages Thursday from The News. Commissioner Monica Hunt said she was unable to speak to a reporter who reached her by phone Thursday, and Mayor Michael Fournier's voicemail was full. 

City Manager Paul Brake, who previously had said the memorial would be moved regardless of opposition, declined to comment beyond Halas' emailed statement.

Charles Semchena, a former city attorney and ex-city commissioner, also received the rejection notification and legal opinion from Halas.

“These are legally insufficient claims and lack any means for a judge to reject a proposal to keep it off a ballot,” he said.

Semchena, city attorney from 1995-2005 and a commissioner from 2007-2011, described the opinion as  “political” and an “example of voter suppression.”

Semchena, who has supported the veterans’ efforts, responded Wednesday to Halas with his own email, which noted that 665 signatures were needed to submit the proposed ordinance to the City Commission and the voters. He argued that Halas’ duties regarding the petition and its signatures were “limited to ascertaining and certifying the number of qualified signers of petitions.”

“You have fulfilled your duties and responsibilities as City Clerk, and the duties and responsibilities now shift to the City Commission,” Semchena wrote in a copy of his email reviewed by The News. “The City Charter requires that they now either vote to pass the proposed ordinance or submit it to the voters this November.

“Unfortunately, it appears you are receiving some erroneous and politically motivated direction,” Semchena continued. “The attorney memo you provided attempts to grant to you powers that far exceed the authority granted a clerk by the City Charter. The fabricated issues raised in the memo are without merit, but even if they did have some value the authority to consider such challenges is reserved to the courts, not to the City Clerk.

Burkhardt said he and others planned to call in comments before the City Commission’s next virtual meeting Monday.

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