Veterans group claims victory in Royal Oak War Memorial fight

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Royal Oak residents will get to decide if the city's War Memorial needs to be moved 40 feet, an Oakland County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday.

Judge Jeffery Matis ruled in favor of a lawsuit by the group Save the Veterans Memorial to have voters decide whether the Royal Oak War Memorial should be relocated. The issue is expected to be placed on the November ballot.

The ruling comes amid a long battle between the city of Royal Oak and several veterans organizations including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.

On Friday, Matis approved petition language to put the matter before voters.

Royal Oak residents are concerned about plans being made to move the Veteran's Memorial from its current location near city hall and more than 40 feet towards the Farmer's Market as part of a redesign of a city center project to make room for food trucks and a food court.

"Now the voters will be able to weigh in on on the future of the memorial," said Charles  Semchena, a former city attorney and ex-city commissioner, who has supported the veterans’ efforts. "All the commissioners had to do is to put it on the ballot."

The monument is a 75-year-old marble structure the names of 188 Royal Oak veterans who died in foreign wars inscribed on it.

"For many families those (soldiers) were lost in action and this is their gravesite," said Semchena said. "There is an emotional attachment."

Royal Oak Mayor Mike Fournier declined comment Saturday, citing a personal emergency.

Semchena said residents voted in 2007 to keep the monument where it stood near Royal Oak's city library. But city officials made plans to move it anyway.

Part of the city's Centennial Commons plan calls for moving the memorial 40 feet southeast toward Troy Street.

Those favoring the move have said it will benefit anyone visiting the memorial and also keep it safe from bicycles, skateboarders and others passing through or using the park.

Critics have argued the relocation will mean less space and more noise from the nearby street, Farmers Market and new city hall and police station.

In May, residents gathered enough signatures to put the matter before voters, but the city refused, Semchena said.

Gerald Gorski, right, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Council, 2019-2023, at the Royal Oak Veteran's Memorial in Royal Oak on Friday, January 8, 2020 with VFW Post members from metro Detroit.

Tom Roth, commander of Royal Oak's American Legion, and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Saturday applauded the judge's decision.

"The commission, with complete disregard to the law, decided to ignore the ordinance of the charter and suppressed the voice of the people," said Roth. "This cannot and will not be accepted and (Friday) we won the suit against the city of Royal Oak, the Commission and the Mayor."

Roth, who says he plans to run for mayor of Royal Oak partly due to the controversy, added that the city "racked up enormous legal bills defending their right to "suppress" the vote of residents.

Staff writer Mike Martindale contributed.