Meeting to discuss proposed Royal Oak zoning changes sparks screaming, shoving

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — An assembly at an Elk's Club lodge Saturday to discuss proposed zoning changes unraveled into a shouting and shoving match between the city's Zoning Board chairman and a resident, according to the city's mayor and meeting attendees.

Accounts differ about who touched whom first, but people on both sides of the melee — Mayor Michael Fournier, Zoning Board Chairman Clyde Esbri's attorney, and members of a group that frequently criticizes City Hall — agree there was screaming and shoving before police officers showed up at the Royal Oak Detroit Elk's Lodge #34 on East 4th Street.

Royal Oak Mayor Michael Fournier is up for reelection on Nov. 2. He faces a challenge from Tom Roth, a software engineer who has been critical of the mayor and other city incumbents. Fournier is touting Royal Oak's good standing in the bond markets, solid property values and safe neighborhoods.

Royal Oak attorney Jim Rasor, who represents Esbri, said his client is considering taking legal action against a resident for assault. Rasor claims the resident shoved and jostled Esbri before the zoning chairman "used an appropriate and reasonable amount of force to get him off him."

Members and supporters of the group RO4AR (Royal Oakers 4 Accountability & Responsibility), which organized Saturday's meeting, tell a different story. They claim Esbri was the aggressor, and that he violently shoved the man into a door, sending him to the hospital with a shattered collarbone.

Police did not return phone calls Sunday.

Gerald Gorski, right, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Council, 2019-2023, at the Royal Oak Veteran's Memorial in Royal Oak last year. Controversy over the relocation of the memorial and other city issues has led to tension with some residents over city officials and proposed zoning changes.

The meeting was organized to discuss opposition to proposed zoning changes that would allow taller structures in the Woodward Corridor.

"Learn how the Mayor and Commissioners are attempting to destroy your single-family neighborhood & how we can fight back!" said an Aug. 1 Facebook post from RO4AR announcing the meeting.

Fournier said he and Esbri saw the post and assumed it was a public meeting.

"This invitation was all over social media, inviting the public to an informational session to discuss zoning issues," Fournier said. "So I asked my zoning chairman to come with me, because it's our duty to listen to residents and see where they're coming from."

Fournier said he and Esbri never got near the lodge's entrance. "We arrive about five minutes early," he said. "We were 20-30 feet away from the door when we hear screaming: 'You're not welcome here; this is a private meeting.'

"We get to the door — we're not blocking it or anything — and say, 'this is a public meeting; help us understand why we can't come in and listen."

The guest speaker at Saturday's meeting, former Royal Oak city attorney and city commissioner Charles Semchena, claimed Fournier and Esbri bum-rushed the venue.

"I happened to be standing by the door when the mayor and (Esbri) tried to force their way into the door," Semchena said.

"I mean, it was like Hitler showing up at the synagogue," Semchena said. "He's the one promoting the zoning changes that everyone hates."

Fournier and Rasor say Esbri was then attacked.

"Clyde Esbri was looking at his phone to pull up the invitation to show that it was a public invitation when (the resident), who has a repeated issue of threatening staff, starts physically provoking him, pushing him with his forearm into another man.

"Clyde pushed the bully away," Fournier said. "He had every right to defend himself against this assault."

Rasor said the man attacked his client "like a bouncer would push someone with their forearm. At the same time, another member of this group was on Clyde's right side, so the first guy pushed him into the second guy. Clyde found himself in a dangerous situation; these guys are bigger than him.

"Clyde took a reasonable path after hands were laid on him by pushing back," Rasor said.

Although Fournier and Rasor said the resident who clashed with Esbri is known to harass city officials, the man has never been charged with any related crimes.

Semchena insisted Esbri got physical with the resident first.

"(The resident) was standing there, and there were some f-bombs thrown," he said. "All of a sudden, Clyde lurches at (the resident) like an offensive guard, with both arms crossed in front of him, and smashes him into the wall where the doorjamb was," Semchena said.

"(The resident) ended up going to the hospital; he's going to need surgery for a severely broken collarbone that'll need screws," Semchena said. "The whole thing happened so quick, and with extreme violence."

Pam Lindell, a candidate for City Commission who attended Saturday's meeting, said Esbri and the mayor were the aggressors, and said police officers who arrived at the scene changed their demeanor when they realized who was involved.

"The police attitude changed when they found it was the mayor they had to go question," Lindell said. "They probably figured at first it was just some residents but they really changed when they found out the mayor was involved; it was like deer in the headlights.

"But the officers did what they were supposed to do, they took everyone's questions and filled out the report," Lindell said.

The meeting, which was attended by about 50 people, continued after the police left without further incident, the attendees said.

Prior to the zoning issue, the RO4AR group was critical of the city's decision to relocate the current Veterans Memorial in Centennial Common to another site because it did not fit in with city architectural plans for the public area.

The Royal Oak City Commission voted unanimously Friday to put the location of the Veterans Memorial on a city-wide ballot on Nov 2. The vote came days after the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld an Oakland Circuit Court ruling that the issue either had to be decided by the commission by Friday, or be put on the November ballot for a city-wide vote.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN