Clawson seeks clarity on ex-mayor's bid to rescind resignation

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

For the second time in a month, Clawson officials could be facing another shake-up in leadership.

The City Council is awaiting a legal opinion this week on whether Reese Scripture, who abruptly resigned as mayor in early May, can rescind that notice and resume her post.

Although disagreements and other issues sparked her exit, Scripture hopes she can return since the council failed to formally vote to accept the resignation, a sticking point the members are uncertain guarantees it, and more work is needed. 

Reese Scripture

“I ran on ethical, competent leadership and restoring fiscal responsibility,” Scripture told The Detroit News. “My concern about the budget process was exactly why I ran. It’s still a problem.”

As Tuesday’s scheduled deadline for legal advice looms, the revolving issue is attracting interest from outside the Oakland County community and among its residents.

“She wants back in with more determination to start cleaning this town out,” said Bill Kelly, who voted for Scripture in 2019. “She is headstrong, she wants to do this, I think she’s the best person for the job and I support her.”

The issue stems from how Scripture, who previously served on the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, left some 18 months after defeating her predecessor, 61%-38%, in the mayoral race.

At the start of a virtual council meeting May 4, she read a lengthy letter announcing her intention to quit, citing issues related to plans to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Scripture told her colleagues there was hardly time to properly review a proposed budget, she had not received one and the administration offered scant details on Clawson’s financial status.

“This administration has been asked time and time again to set meetings so council can assess priorities, capital needs, and to establish goals,” she said. “The pandemic caused the biggest upheaval any of us have ever seen in our lifetimes — everything changed for every person and every institution. But as elected leaders of this community, we have not had one single discussion on what all of this means and how we might leverage the opportunities in front of us for the benefit of Clawson and Clawson’s future. And according to this agenda…we never will.”

Scripture exited the Zoom call after turning the meeting over to Mayor Pro Tem Paula Millan. Her resignation letter was sent to the city manager and council members, according to the council meetings for the next meeting last month.

Millan soon was sworn in to serve as mayor by the next gathering, which also created a vacancy. However, the council never voted on accepting Scripture’s resignation, she said.

Scripture acknowledged that "Robert’s Rules of Order," which the council and many bodies follow guidance on parliamentary procedure, indicates members typically vote on such a motion before anointing a successor. Beyond that, she said, “I don’t know of anything in our charter that says a word about a resignation.”

Her thoughts on keeping the job shifted in the weeks after quitting as many residents reached out online or elsewhere to voice their support. “I just had a feeling of letting people down,” she said.

Scripture, who works full-time for the IRS, had also spotted conflicts of interest as the budget analysis lingered but identified potential solutions if she reclaims the mayoral role. Faltering talks on the city's finances after her also factored in.

“My first priority is to start putting things in place that will allow us to get good, well-intentioned, well thought-out financial management,” Scripture said.

Some council members said they immediately missed her acumen.

“She’s probably the smartest person you’ll ever meet on budgets,” Councilman Louis Samson said. “When she looks at a budget or pension plan, she knows far more than you or I would because she does it everyday. She’s the best mayor since I’ve lived in the city and I moved (here) in 1974. She cares about the citizens and makes sure the money’s not wasted. I’ve never seen another mayor work for the city like this. She’s a champion of Clawson.”

The week of May 21, Scripture alerted city officials through email about wanting her job back. That decision prompted a special council meeting May 25.

City attorney Renis Nushaj told the council he could not offer a legal opinion on whether Scripture’s bid was legitimate. “There’s an inherent conflict of interest in having our office render this opinion, and as such we must recuse ourselves,” he said. “… The briefest explanation is obviously we represent all of City Council.”

Nushaj recommended the council tap one of three legal experts he contacted who were not connected to them or the city. They were to send a letter seeking “a legal opinion with respect to the ramifications of these decisions and who is our fair mayor in this fair city,” he said, estimated doing so could cost the city roughly $1,000.

The council selected Clement Waldmann, a retired magistrate. His expertise is needed, Nushaj said, to clarify an issue that has emerged in Michigan before.

The attorney cited a 1986 opinion from then-Attorney General Frank Kelley. He found that a Bay City commissioner who rescinded his resignation more than two weeks after submitting it could do so because state law says a public official's resignation must be officially accepted or a successor appointed to be effective.

“The answers to those legal concepts is exactly what we seek to address here and why this is not simple,” Nushaj told the council. “... It’s probably the most interesting issue I’ve dealt with in my career.”

Councilwoman Kathy Phillips agreed. “I’m fully supportive of doing this, because we all know everything that we do is going to be a 2-2 vote for a while and I think it’s imperative that we get this off the table one way or the other and have an impartial party look at it, resolve it and we can all move on, whichever way it ends,” she said during the meeting.

Seeking independent advice seems best since the situation is "pretty unusual," said Christopher Johnson, general counsel for the Michigan Municipal League and a former Northville mayor who also focused on municipal law as an attorney.

"I really think that what Clawson is doing is very appropriate in that there’s more to it than "Robert's Rules." There’s case law. There are potentially some issues involving their charter. There may have been council rules that have been adopted that may relevant."

Kelly, who has lived in the city for about 20 years, said he was heartbroken when Scripture resigned but understood she ran into “roadblocks” with other councilmembers. He hopes she can reclaim the mayoral role.

“Reese is a fantastic person, a good person and she is smart. She knows what she is doing,” he said. “It is not a money-making operation to be mayor of Clawson. She’s doing it because she lives here, saw some things and wanted to make it better.”

If restored, Scripture hopes to explore launching a commission to update the city charter. However, she doesn't intend to run for reelection this fall and is sanguine about whether a legal opinion allows her to lead the city again.

"If it can, then I will finish the job until November," she said. "If it can’t, then that’s the way it is."