Royal Oak officials prompt new controversy over charter amendment

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Royal Oak —The City Commission added a proposed charter amendment to the Nov. 2 ballot saying state law controls city elections, a move critics say is designed to discourage citizen-driven ballot initiatives.

The amendment would "acknowledge Michigan State Law ... controls elections in Michigan" and that state law will decide all matters "in conflict." The city leaders made the move after rejecting a petition by veterans to let voters decide the location of a war memorial.

FILE - 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, 2021. Royal Oak leaders proposed the city charter amendment the move after rejecting a petition by veterans to let voters decide the location of a war memorial.

The city clerk in May rejected the petition spearheaded by veterans, citing state law and saying it was "legally insufficient."

“Now their amendment is another attempt to delay or defeat something they are not in favor of,” said Tom Roth, commander of the 1,000-member American Legion Post in Royal Oak. “They want to rely on state law because they know they are violating their own city charter. They were in the wrong and they know it. So they want to change the charter so they can be in the right."

But Royal Oak leaders maintain the amendment is just part of the standard election process. One dismissed it as "housekeeping" of city practices and rules.

Veterans groups filed a lawsuit in May over the rejection of the war memorial petition. They said they collected enough signatures to have the matter decided by the seven-member City Commission or added to the November ballot.

The City Commission, without debate, on Monday unanimously voted to put the proposed charter amendment on the general election ballot.

A preface to the proposal on Monday's meeting agenda, which does not appear on the ballot question, clarifies that state law would decide all matters “in conflict.” But there is no definition of what constitutes conflict other than the view of the City Commission.

Royal Oak's Home Rule City Act says ballot initiatives must be strictly legislative in nature, not administrative —  the difference being created law compared with the application of an existing ordinance, according to a two-page opinion written last month by interim city attorney Ann McClorey McLaughlin.

Attorneys for the veterans argue, under the city charter, the clerk doesn't have the power to seek a legal opinion on a ballot petition, but only the duty to count and certify signatures to see if it qualifies for the ballot.

McLaughlin’s memo also characterized the petition on the war memorial 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, and included organizations that were not the initial sponsor of the proposal. The memo added that state law prohibits adopting an ordinance that would impair existing obligations or contracts agreed to by the city and involving considerable expense.

“I think it rather strange in the middle of litigation you feel youneed to change your city charter to reflect this,” veterans' attorney George Googasian told The Detroit News, referring to the city commission's vote Monday night.

Googasian filed the complaint on behalf of the vets and is scheduled to have a conference hearing this week with city attorneys and Oakland Circuit Judge Jeffrey S. Matis. The litigation seeks a ruling that the city acted improperly and needs to put the veterans memorial issue on the November ballot.

As of Wednesday, the city had not filed a legal response to the lawsuit.

“It’s very unusual for a city or municipality to relinquish their political power, to give it up to the state,” said Googasian, who has practiced law for 60 years and is a former president of the State Bar of Michigan and the Oakland County Bar Association.

Gerald Fisher, a Cooley Law School professor who specializes in municipal law, said there can be conflict between local and state law which usually favors state law.

"It's a mystery why a city would not be following its charter and have to amend it in such a vague way," Fisher said. "I suppose there could be reasons but I would like to know more about it for a full explanation."

Royal Oak City Commissioner Patricia Paruch said the citizen charter review committee recommends amendments "for just about every city election" to "clean up and update our very old (1921) charter."

On Monday night the City Commission also approved a charter amendment question that would eliminate the health department and position of city health officer as a mandatory city department and department head. A third approved proposed change would allow the city assessor to select a designee to attend meetings of the board of review in place of the assessor. Those proposed amendments also will go before city voters in November. 

"The three we approved for the ballot this year are pretty benign clean-up amendments," Paruch said.

The Veterans Memorial issue has taken several turns in recent months. 

City Clerk Melanie Halas verified there were enough signatures on the petitions on May 4. She later certified there were enough signatures to go to the City Commission for a vote or that it be placed on a citywide ballot if officials chose not to decide the matter.

Hours later, Halas reversed course, saying she had received a legal opinion from the city attorney that the petitions “lacked sufficiency.” 

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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