DDA, village treasurers to review bills, report to the board
By Megan Kelley
Lake Orion’s Downtown Development Authority Board of Directors met in-person for the first time in more than a year on July 13 where frustration brewed yet again over a request from board member and Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett for the release of itemized attorney bills.
The request comes after several months of questioning where and how money is being spent by the DDA and, more recently, a recognition of a legal bill that the DDA had been wrongfully charged for at their June meeting.
“I have serious concerns as a DDA board member. Our job is to ensure that the monies we are being entrusted with are spent wisely, not just be a rubber stamp for the Village,” Barnett wrote in an email to the DDA board dated June 29. “My questioning of the Village admin fees being over budget at our May meeting and the legal bills at our last (June 8) meeting led us to discovering that the Village was trying to, at a minimum, stick us with their legal bills. What else have we inappropriately paid for on behalf of the Village?”
According to DDA Executive Director Molly LaLone, itemized bills from an attorney to a client is considered privileged communication and that the client in question is not one individual person but the entire board as a collective.
“It is my opinion that the entire DDA Board must vote to determine whether the itemized bills are to be shared and the privilege suspended,” the DDA’s attorney, Mary Kucharek of Beier Howlett, wrote in an email dated July 6 after being contacted by LaLone to receive her legal opinion on Barnett’s request.
“The Board should carefully consider the purpose of this request by one Board member. The Board should determine whether the intent of the one Board member is for personal use or personal gain, or if acting in the DDA’s best interest in order to determine if the Board desires to waive the attorney/client privilege. This is a dangerous precedent,” Kucharek wrote.
Based on this opinion, LaLone recommended the board deny Barnett’s request and instead pass a resolution to have DDA board Treasurer Monica Squarcia and village Treasurer Josh Johnson review attorney bills for accuracy and report any discrepancies to the DDA board.
This recommendation, however, according to Barnett, is not rooted in the law at all and there is no exception to viewing itemized bills when it comes to attorney bills specifically.
“I am a board member in good standing, as are all of you, and there is no exception to attorney bills, that’s a fact. We can protect the opinions of the attorney that we paid for by attorney/client privilege but to say we can’t see the bills is just dead wrong,” Barnett said. “It is not up to the treasurer to take care of the taxpayer’s dollars for the DDA. That is dead wrong. That is the entire purpose of the DDA board. If that were the case, there is no reason to have a DDA board.”
Several board members, however, were concerned about releasing the bills after reading the attorney’s opinion, stating that if their attorney says they cannot do it, they should listen to the attorney over Barnett.
“The legal opinion is very clear – we can release it; the board has to vote to do that. They are saying it’s a ‘dangerous precedent’ because they don’t want the information out there. I mean, it’s embarrassing to be honest,” Barnett said.
When questioned by LaLone, Barnett denied that his request was for personal gain.
“I’m asking for support on this. I’m not asking you to get in the middle of a fight. It’s just what’s right. Release the bills,” Barnett said to the board.
Chairperson Debbie Burgess spoke in favor of LaLone’s recommendation to have both the village treasurer and the DDA treasurer review the bills for accuracy.
“Isn’t there some way that we can come together and say ‘I trust the village treasurer. I trust the DDA treasurer’ because ultimately if we can’t trust each other, we’re not going to get much done,” Burgess said. “Couldn’t we trust them, moving forward, to go back. If you want five years of paperwork looked at, empower them to go and do that and then come back and say ‘you know what, we didn’t find anything’ or ‘we found one thing from four years ago,’ whatever. Because we don’t want to fight here. We just want to work together.”
After making a few clarifications, Barnett changed his original request of the past year’s itemized attorney bills to just the past two months of attorney bills, stating that he would be surprised if they had not been inappropriately billed during those months as well.
Barnett also raised concerns that neither LaLone nor village Manager Joe Young had yet to state that the bills had been looked at and there were no discrepancies found.
LaLone then informed the board that the bills had been looked at and there were no inappropriate billings. However, LaLone also revealed that she had found items on the June billing that should not have been there, adding that she requested those items be removed prior to the meeting. The revelation solidified Barnett’s reasoning behind his request.
“I’m doing my job as a DDA board member. Frankly, we can FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) these documents, so how embarrassing is that as a board member? I’m going to have to submit a FOIA request to the village to get a copy of our bills. And our DDA Director, just now just said, and she didn’t lead with it she just randomly said ‘I just had to remove additional inappropriate charges.’ That’s our job guys,” Barnett said.
Barnett noted that Kucharek is not only also the attorney for the village but has also retained her own legal counsel based on correspondence regarding the canceled hearing to remove Barnett from the DDA board.
“We’re getting legal advice from the same person that’s representing the village on this issue, who retained her own attorney because apparently she thinks she needs her own attorney. So that’s where we need to stand up as a DDA board and I’d appreciate some common sense and some compassion on this to be honest with you,” said Barnett.
“It seems really strange that the person that just again inappropriately billed us, Ms. Kucharek, is the same person whose opinion who’s scared of us to release the bills…we need to talk about that separately, having a conflict of interest between an attorney that’s on both sides of an issue,” Barnett said.
Barnett made a motion to release the last two months (April and May) bills from Beier Howlett that the board voted on and paid for during those months. The motion was seconded by Squarcia but ultimately failed to be passed due to lack of majority board support (five votes needed) with Barnett, Squarcia, Joan Sheridan and Kristin Horvath voting for the motion. Burgess, Sam Caruso and Lloyd Coe voted against. Matt Shell and Ken Van Portfliet were not present at the meeting.
Horvath then offered up another motion to “waive attorney/client privilege between Beier Howlett and the DDA board for the legal bill break down and to further resolve to request the DDA treasurer and the village treasurer, who is the DDA contractor for financial services, to review the attorney bills from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021 for accuracy and report any discrepancies to the DDA board and to add that anyone from the DDA board be allowed in that meeting and any further meetings regarding money purposes.”
The motion was seconded by Barnett but again failed to get majority support with Barnett, Horvath and Squarcia voting for the motion and Burgess, Caruso, Coe and Sheridan voting against.
Though neither motion passed, Barnett and Squarcia agreed to set up a time to meet when Squarcia reviews the bills.