Editor’s Note: The Lake Orion Review is reviewing hundreds of pages of documents and speaking to individuals on both sides of this developing story and will publish the results of its investigation in an upcoming issue.
By Jim Newell
Orion Township Treasurer Donni Steele and Supervisor Chris Barnett came under fire from residents of the Keatington subdivision who are angry over a property Steel and her husband purchased in 2016 when she was a trustee.
The property in question is at the intersection of Galaxy Way and Orbit Drive in the Keatington subdivision, and is near Lake Voorheis.
Dozens of residents showed up at the Orion Township Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, demanding answers about why Steele was allowed to purchase the property and why the township never disclosed that Steele received a commission for the sale of the property. They also want the township to adopt an ethics or code of conduct policy, so that elected officials cannot purchase township-owned property in the future.
The story erupted online last week after a Keatington resident, J. Eric Whitesel, posted a letter in the Lake Orion Chat Room questioning the ethics of selling township-owned property to an elected township official. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 166 comments and 201 reactions on the online post, most critical of the township and Steele.
The letter, which was emailed to all township board members on March 18, is signed by 35 Keatington residents, including John Ball and Lisa Goyette, who are at the forefront of the Keatington group.
“People are upset about it because it doesn’t seem right,” Goyette said. “We think that the township should know what’s going on. The issue at hand is that township-owned property is being sold to township board members.”
“The point of resolution that the community wants is for this practice to end,” said Ball. “We just want a healthy community that is being (governed) by healthy standards from our board.”
A preliminary review of the listing and offer history documents provided to The Lake Orion Review from Orion Township shows that the township received at least three inquiries and three offers on the property between March 2014 and April 2016.
According to documents, the property was listed for $399,900 on March 20, 2014 by David Iselli of Keller Williams Realty. It was reduced to $299,000 on April 23, 2014, and then relisted at $399,000 on March 6, 2015 before being listed as “pending” on March 23, 2015.
The property was then “Back on Market” on July 27, 2015, through Keller Williams.
On Sept. 22, 2015, the property was listed for $295,000 by Kathleen Sanchez of Coldwell Banker Shooltz Realty, and then listed as sold for $225,000 on May 10, 2016.
During that time, there were three inquiries on the property: Oct. 12, Oct. 19 and Oct. 22, all in 2015. The township received an offer of $200,000 on March 16, 2016, which was later withdrawn.
The township board did accept an offer of $242,000 from Dave Kase on April 5, 2016. That offer was withdrawn on April 11, 2016, according to the documents.
The township board did accept an offer of $225,000 by Phil and Donni Steele on April 5, 2016 as the “backup offer.” That offer became the “primary” offer on April 12, 2016 after Kase withdrew his offer.
Goyette and Ball also questioned that Steele got a commission of $6,750 on the sale of the property. Steele has a real estate background and has had affiliation with Coldwell Banker Shooltz, they said.
“We do not want any township-owned property to be sold to any township official,” Goyette said. “Even if it is legal, it doesn’t look right. (The commission) was never, ever divulged.”
Fred Foley, who signed the Keatington residents’ letter to the township board, said during the board meeting that Steele effectively received a kickback by getting a commission, adding that she received “insider information” about the property.
“All I can say is, the next election…anyone who voted for this (property) sale should be voted out,” he said.
Residents also said that they were told back in 2015 that no one would ever build on that property – claiming they were told that the property might be used as a neighborhood park.
“It was never going to be a park. It was a liability to our DPW and they asked us to sell it,” Barnett said. “We were never going to maintain it as a park because we don’t maintain neighborhood parks. We want to invest our resources in parks that our entire community can use.”
According to two opinions by township attorney Dan Kelly — one in 2016 and another in 2019 when he was asked by Barnett to review the property sale — Steele did not violate any laws when she bid on the property because the public had access to the same information as she had.
Steel also recused herself from the vote to sell the property.
Steele offered a tearful apology during the board meeting, saying: “I’m sorry. The last thing I ever wanted was to be crucified on television.”
Township board meetings are broadcast live online and on cable television by ONTV.
Steele said that there were five offers on the property before she made an offer to purchase the lot.
“Every one of them fell through for one reason or another,” she said. “When I was growing up, Keatington was the place to be.”
When the property went up for sale, Steele said she saw it as an opportunity to build a home in Keatington.
“I’m sorry. I’m stuck as well,” Steele said. “The thought of living over there…makes me cry.”
Both Barnett and Steele said the online posts have been hurtful.
“Are you kidding me? My kids read that about me,” Steele said. “It’s shameful that you guys would say that about us.”
“The stuff some of you have said about me on social media is egregious,” Barnett said.
During her public comments to the board, Goyette also said she felt bullied and intimidated by an email from Barnett after he attended a May 9 meeting with Keatington residents.
“I’m being subjected to intimidation,” Goyette said.
“I’m always opposed to the township getting involved in the real estate business,” said Trustee John Steimel to the applause of the audience. “Just stay out of it. It creates hard feelings.”
Trustee Mike Flood said that once the township board makes a consensus decision, it’s the responsibility of the township supervisor to carry out the board’s direction, including selling township-owned property.
Residents also urged the township to draft and adopt an ethics policy; or have a professional organization do so for the township.
“There seems to be a reluctance on the part of this board to adopt an ethics policy,” said resident Tom Sanna. “That just baffles the hell out of me.”
“I’m not opposed to (an ethics policy) at all,” Barnett told The Review. “Nothing illegal has happened. Just because we don’t have an ethics policy doesn’t mean that something unethical has happened.”
Barnett said he’s confident that once people review all the facts they’ll see for themselves that the township board did not act unethically, adding that the township board follows “the law” and the “law trumps any policy” that the township adopts.
“We did talk to the attorney at the time and we didn’t think it was a conflict of interest,” Barnett said.