By Jim Newell
The Orion Township Board of Trustees voted 4-2 Monday night to hire an outside human resources investigator to investigate recent allegations of intimidation Clerk Penny Shults made against Supervisor Chris Barnett.
Treasure Donni Steele, Barnett, Trustee Brian Birney and Shults, who cast the deciding vote, supported the motion to hire the outside investigator at a cost not to exceed $2,500.
Trustees Michael Flood, Jr. and John Steimel voted against the motion.
She went to Oakland County Sheriff’s Office on March 22 and told investigators in the Special Investigations Unit that she has been feeling “a growing sense of intimidation, harassment and bullying” from Barnett and wants it to stop.
Shults and Barnett have been at odds lately, with Shults saying Barnett has made inappropriate comments during a closed session meeting and nudged her during a staff meeting.
She also says he jokingly referenced punching her at a ribbon cutting ceremony for a local business on Sept. 14, 2017: “Our Clerk Penny Shults is the happiest person in Orion. Even when you punch her in the eye she still comes up smiling. I didn’t punch her in the eye,” Shults told investigators.
“As I stated in the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office complaint I was not looking to file criminal charges or hurt Chris in any way. I had nowhere to go with my complaint and I wanted the harassment toward me to stop,” Shults wrote.
Barnett denied the allegations and read a statement refuting the claim during the board of trustees meeting on April 2, saying he “would not be intimidated by false and malicious accusations” that he believed were politicly motivated.
He voluntarily met with sheriff’s office investigators on March 30 to address the allegations. The investigation concluded that there was no indication of harassment or intimidation to warrant pursuing a case.
But township officials say that there is still a dark shadow over township hall and employees shouldn’t have to work in that environment.
“It’s almost like there’s a monster in the middle of the township…this animosity that continues to come from the clerk’s office,” said Steele, who made the motion to hire the investigator, adding the goal is to reveal the truth and maintain the transparency and integrity of the township.
Steele also said “misrepresenting someone’s character” and going to the police to file a report was a serious issue that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.
“I don’t really support spending taxpayer dollars to talk about this,” said Steimel. “Okay, we get it – some people don’t get along. But I won’t be supporting this.”
Resident Cheryl Crowl Clark spoke at the meeting, saying she “feels sorry for the employees” but that the police have already investigated and found nothing to warrant pursuing the case and the township should accept that.
“I really object to sitting here, taking my time as a citizen and listening to this,” Clark said. “I would resent spending $2 on an attorney.”
Barnett said on Monday that he and Shults have not interacted since the allegations and he has directed all department heads not to retaliate in any way toward the clerk’s office.
“I’ve never been through anything like this in my life. When you get called to give a statement on an alleged assault, it’s pretty unnerving,” Barnett said. “I’m not opposed to bringing closure to this dark time, this dark situation.”
“I support his wholeheartedly. I have been waiting for this to be reviewed,” Shults said.
“I agree that something has to happen. It can’t continue like this,” Birney said. “It’s doesn’t seem like there is an endgame here. It just keeps going on.”
“The underlying issue is there is a hostile work environment here at township hall,” Barnett said. “The employees that work in this building are being subjected to things they should not be subjected to.”
By Jim Newell