First African-American’s rise to a Grosse Pointes council in doubt

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Sierra Leone Donaven

Grosse Pointe Farms — The future of a woman poised to become the first African-American councilmember in any of the five Grosse Pointes is now in jeopardy after the mayor received an anonymous letter questioning her past.

Sierra Leone Donaven, 58, is scheduled to be sworn in as a member of Grosse Pointe Farms' city council on Aug. 13 after receiving a unanimous appointment from the panel during a July 12 meeting to fill a vacant seat.

But Donaven said she was visited at her home Friday by Mayor Louis Theros and Councilman Lev Wood to discuss the letter the mayor received that tipped him off on a misdemeanor case against her that was dropped more than a decade ago when she was a federal investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Detroit.

Theros asked her to notify each of the other councilmembers to explain to determine whether they would still support her, she said.

“The mayor said he did not ask me to resign,” Donaven told The Detroit News after their meeting. “He clarified that he will support me and said he did not want me to resign.”

The point of concern is that in 2005, Donaven was accused of using a government database to alert a convicted drug dealer about the status of federal investigations.

She was charged in U.S. District Court with a misdemeanor count of computer fraud for using the Treasury Enforcement Communications System to search for information about a drug dealer with whom she had a “personal relationship,” the government alleged at the time.

But in 2006, a federal judge dismissed the charges and the Justice Department abruptly dropped the case without presenting evidence or going to trial. Donaven, who retired that year after 20 years on the job, consistently denied any improper conduct.

"The case was dismissed," she said. "The matter was addressed truthfully, completely and resolved.”

Donaven said she has received support from some on council while one member would not say whether he would continue to back her appointment.

"I told the mayor today that a house divided against itself cannot stand," she said. "I would be stepping into a swearing-in knowing I’m not fully supported.”

Sierra Leone Donaven, right, visits with Bill Lynk, her neighbor of seven years.

Theros confirmed the meeting with Donaven and said he and Wood sought to learn more about Donaven's background.

The mayor said he told her "that it would be better for the councilmembers to hear directly from her rather than me because she is more familiar with the facts than I."

"I value Sierra, and I expressed as much to her," Theros said. "She brings great perspective and experience to the table. ... I hope it ends with a valued person serving the city that we all love and admire." 

Despite the initial support, Donaven said she is ready to resign.

“The mayor asked me to wait 24 hours,” she said. “I love this city. I am not trying to hurt the city.

“When you don’t have the support of people who believe in you, it’s gone. The joy and excitement about working on the council is gone.”

Before questions were raised over Donaven's background, the city was prepared to celebrate its first African-American representative in 125 years, an achievement confirmed by city officials to The News from all five Pointes.

During the July council meeting when Donaven was appointed, Wood nominated her, saying, in part, “we all had a chance to hear from highly qualified residents willing to serve the city as a member of this City Council.

"All the applicants would be an excellent fit to serve our city. But one applicant stands out to me. As a member of the Beautification Advisory Commission, which I chair, I have come to know her as a dedicated public servant. She is attentive to details in our committee meetings. Most of all, I have learned that she has an impressive desire to help and to serve others."

Wood said he is a believer in diversity, including diversity of opinions, adding the city's council has been mostly “male-dominated.”

Grosse Pointe Park resident Greg Bowens, who also is the president of the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch, has known Donaven for more than three years. Donaven is one of the founding members of the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch.

Bowens called the questioning of Donaven's background "outrageous."

"I am deeply disappointed. It’s not fair," he said. "She shouldn’t have to run a gauntlet to explain a dismissal to anyone. Sierra Donaven had a distinguished career at the federal level in law enforcement, and she has the badges to prove it."

Bowens said the key issue is that Donaven wasn't convicted of a crime.

“She never did anything wrong, so what’s the issue? Case dismissed shouldn’t mean you get convicted over and over again outside the court,” he said.

Donaven moved to the Farms in 2011 and the following year received a beautification award from the Beautification Advisory Commission. It was the catalyst that helped her achieve the eventual appointment to the City Council after serving roughly six years on the commission.

“At the awards ceremony, chairperson Lev Wood invited me to join the commission,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised and grateful for the invitation because of my passion for gardening and community service.”

It's been a long road for Donaven, who endured childhood trauma that included being removed from her mother's guardianship as her family dealt with care and alcohol problems.

“I saw things that a child should never have to see,” she said. "... Since before I was born, my mother was already neglecting her children by leaving them at home unattended, dropping them off only to return days later, even weeks. There were long periods of time when my siblings and I didn’t have any food."

Donaven and two of her younger siblings were shuttled off to Children's Village in Pontiac and then to Oxford where they remained for about a year before she was adopted.

She refused to be broken by her childhood.

“God shall give you the strength to get through it,” she said. “Even when you cannot see any good in an experience, God does work it all together for one’s highest and greatest good.”