Lake Orion Review files Freedom of Information Act requests for attorney bills
By Jim Newell
The legal fees for the public hearing that never happened continue to mount, with the Village of Lake Orion incurring thousands of dollars in attorney bills.
Orion Township has spent more than $1,000 on legal fees.
And taxpayers are on the hook for those fees.
The village had scheduled a public hearing for June 29 to consider removing Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett from the DDA Board of Directors for conflict of interest and incompatible public offices, saying Barnett made his position as a DDA board member subservient to his position as township supervisor.
The complaint against Barnett stems from the April 13 DDA board meeting when Barnett and Orion Township Trustee Brian Birney requested that the DDA board refund all, or some, of the anticipated $94,000 the DDA will collect this fiscal year from the Orion Township Fire Millage.
Barnett and Birney pointed out that the DDA currently returns money it collects from the village’s police millage back to the Lake Orion Police Department, approximately $90,000 per year.
The village attorney then notified Barnett in a June 23 letter, dated June 21, 2021, that the hearing against him had been canceled.
“Village Manager (K. Joseph) Young has been contacted by many members of the public, and together we have determined that it is in the best interest of the Village of Lake Orion, the DDA of Lake Orion and the Township of Lake Orion to, at this time, dismiss the request for a public hearing. Therefore, the public hearing that was to be held on Tuesday, June 30, 2021 is hereby canceled,” the letter from village attorney Mary Kucharek of Beier Howlett law firm stated.
Barnett has been vocal that he wanted the public hearing to go forward to clear his name and shine light on how the village continues to use the DDA as “its piggy bank.”
Throughout the process, Kucharek and township attorney Dan Kelly have met their respective clients and written letters in defense of their clients, all of which costs time and, ultimately, money.
At its June 14 meeting, the village council approved an invoice dated June 3, 2021, paying $1,823.25 to Beier Howlett law firm for phone calls between village attorney Mary Kucharek and village Manager Joe Young and DDA Executive Director Molly LaLone, law and ethics reviews, drafting the notice letter and other research, totaling 11.3 hours.
On the advice of Kucharek, the village council also voted 5-1 at its June 14 meeting to hire an outside attorney – Thomas J. Ryan, P.C. – to serve as chairperson of the hearing for $250 per hour and a sum not to exceed $3,000.
At its July 12 meeting, the village council approved a bill of $1,025 to Thomas J. Ryan P.C. for legal services rendered related to the public hearing.
The council also approved bills of $611 for legal services and $297 for legal services-other to Beier Howlett for “DDA Matters for June 2021.”
Additionally, the council approved $7,185.75 to Beier Howlett for “General Matters for June 2021”, bringing the total paid to Beier Howlett in June to $8,093.75.
The township’s legal fees are comparatively modest.
“We have $1,123 in legal expenses related to the village/DDA issue,” Barnett said.
Barnett, who has volunteered on the DDA board for nine years, has said publicly that he is done spending taxpayer funds on this issue. He also provided The Review with the township’s legal expenses related to the public hearing upon request.
The township board has supported Barnett in requesting the DDA refund some or all of the fire millage money it captures, and with legal expenses to fight the public hearing and the village’s efforts to remove Barnett from the DDA Board of Directors.
The Lake Orion Review submitted two Freedom of Information Act requests to the village on July 16 asking for an itemized attorney bill for June 2021 and for the total amount the village has spent on legal expenses incurred in relation to the public hearing.
The village responded to the requests within the required five business day window and requested, per the Freedom of Information Act, an extension until Aug. 6, at which time the village will either have to provide the requested information or deny the request, with reason.
At the July 13 DDA board meeting, Barnett also requested the itemized attorney bills relating to DDA matters.
LaLone cited an attorney opinion from Kucharek stating that itemized bills from an attorney to a client are considered privileged and that the board should consider whether the purpose behind the request “is for personal use or personal gain.”
In order to suspend attorney-client privilege and release the itemized bills, Kucharek said the entire board would have to vote to release the bills and suspend privilege.
LaLone recommended that the board follow the attorney’s opinion and not grant the request. The DDA board voted but did not have enough support to release the itemized attorney bills.
“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?”
The village had sent the $1,823.25 to the DDA to pay, but village officials, after Barnett questioned the bill, said that bill was erroneously sent to the DDA and should be charged to 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.