Appeals court upholds ruling to put Royal Oak memorial site on Nov. 2 ballot

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — The Michigan Court of Appeals on Friday rejected an effort by city officials to overturn an Oakland Circuit judge’s ruling that an ordinance regarding the location of the city's Veterans Memorial must be decided by the city commission by Aug. 6 or placed on the November ballot for a citywide vote.

The three-judge appeals panel turned down a half-dozen arguments raised by the city, concluding in its 10-page opinion: “all that remains is for defendants to follow the trial court's order and take the actions necessary to place the proposition on the ballot for the November 2, 2021 election.”

The appeals 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.

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. The State Court of Appeals has ruled Royal Oak must put a measure before voters in November over the proposed relocation of its veterans memorial.

The city, its mayor and commissioners are individually named as defendants in the action and failure to comply with the court order by next week could result in fines, even jail time for contempt of court. 

Mayor Michael Fournier could not be reached for comment Friday. City Manager Paul Brake also did not return a call to The Detroit News.

Charles Semchena, a former city attorney who has supported the efforts of the veterans groups, said the site of the memorial should have been a ballot question to begin with.

“The Court of Appeals made clear to Royal Oak's mayor and city commission something that should have been clear all along — elected officials are not free to ignore laws they find inconvenient or simply don't like,” he said. 

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

"The veterans followed the rules and did everything correctly. From the beginning, elected officials should have done the right thing and put the veterans' proposed ordinance on the ballot," he added. "They chose instead to waste tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in a futile attempt to suppress voters' right to decide an issue of great community concern."

The conflict stemmed from the city's plan to raze its old city hall and police station and move the memorial — located near the public library — about 40 feet southeast toward Troy Street. 

The controversy has prompted lawsuits, and a petition drive by area veterans to keep the memorial at its current site.

Opponents, including several veteran’s groups, have argued the memorial relocation would mean less space and more noise. City officials have countered that the change is part of a plan to make its Centennial Common more accessible and it would protect the memorial from pedestrians, bicyclist and skateboarders. 

The city has said there were enough signatures gathered to put the matter up for a vote, they claimed there had been legal deficiencies in the veterans’ petition. The city clerk initially verified that enough signatures were gathered but on advice from city officials, ultimately declined to certify the petitions.

The decision landed the matter in Oakland Circuit Court where earlier this month Judge Jeffrey Matis disagreed with the city’s actions and ruled the city commission must vote to adopt what's coined the Preserve and Protect Veterans Memorial ordinance or place it on November ballot for voters to decide. The city then challenged the decision in the appeals court.

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