By Jim Newell
Orion Township Clerk Penny Shults sent a letter to the judge in former Trustee Ron Sliwinski’s misdemeanor assault and battery case, stating her observations of Sliwinski in his duties as an elected township official.
At issue, however, is that the letter was sent on township letterhead and signed with Shult’s official title.
The Lake Orion Review received a copy of the letter from a citizen who was angered over the use of the letterhead and title in a letter of reference in a criminal court case.
“It was a letter written describing his behavior as a board of trustee member. It was not asking the judge to be lenient. It was not asking any favor,” Shults said.
Shults added that she never expected to exert any influence over the court and that she wrote the letter on Sliwinski’s request after he had pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault and battery charges.
In Shults’s letter to Judge Julie Nicholson, dated April 11, 2018, she wrote:
“I welcome this opportunity to write a reference letter on behalf of Ron Sliwinski…I have known Ron since the summer of 2016 when he first ran for public office. I have always found him to be professional and kind. He carries out his duties as Trustee in a competent manner and engages in thoughtful conversation in order to build consensus with fellow Board members,” Shults wrote.
“Other areas where I have engaged with Mr. Sliwinski include two occasions when I was registering students to vote at Lake Orion High School. On those occasions he made a point to stop by the registration tables to engage in conversation with students and teachers in the area. His interactions were sincere and appropriate.
“Before our township Board meetings start, there is often opportunity to hear updates about Ron’s family and he always speaks kindly and affectionately of his wife and children,” Shults wrote.
Shults said writing the letter is no different than a board member speaking their opinion at a meeting or out in public.
“It’s the same thing as if a trustee asks for his resignation,” she said. “There have been occasions where board members were out in public or speaking to the press. Were they speaking for themselves or the full board? Our board motions speak as a board. I fully supported all of those.”
Shults emphasizes that she never asked for leniency in the letter and never tried to defend Sliwinski.
“I spoke with attorney Dan Kelly regarding that and he said it was not a conflict of interest. I have the right to express my observations as a I saw Ron Sliwinksi as a board member. These were merely observations,” Shults said, adding she “absolutely did not” support Sliwinski’s behavior.
Sliwinski was accused of harassing a teacher at Lake Orion High School. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 14 days in jail. He resigned as trustee May 8.
“I guess a person can take this and look at this from two different perspectives. A person can take it completely out of context. All of my votes, all of my directions, have been to make sure our employees were protected,” Shults said. “I have nothing to hide.”
Shults did vote in November to send the allegations against Sliwinski to the state attorney general’s office for review, and she voted in April to accept Sliwinski’s resignation as trustee. She also supported a letter to township employees in November stating that the township does not tolerate harassment in the workplace and that if any employee had ever felt harassed they could come forward.
She also alluded that the “leaking” of the letter had political motivations behind it.
Shults did file a complaint with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office against Supervisor Chris Barnett for allegedly trying to intimidate and bully her during the course of township business. The sheriff’s office investigated and did not pursue any further course of action.
Earlier this month, the township board did vote to hire a special human resources attorney to investigate the allegations. (See the May 9, 2018 issue of The Lake Orion Review for the story.)
Barnett, who said he was unaware that The Lake Orion Review had a copy of the letter, but said he consulted with the township attorney to see if Orion Township had an official position on using township letterhead in this, or similar, situations.
“We don’t have anything official at this point. We’re probably going to have to draft something,” Barnett said.
“No one in this organization should be speaking on behalf of the township on township letterhead on a potentially controversial issue. You could see how a letter like that could potentially influence a judge in a very serious case.
“I was asked to provide a letter of recommendation and, for obvious reasons, I told Ron Sliwinski that I could not and would not,” Barnett said.
By Jim Newell