By Jim Newell
The Village of Lake Orion is trying to remove Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett from the Lake Orion Downtown Development Board of Directors over what the village claims is a conflict of interest.
At the April 13 meeting, Barnett and township Trustee Brian Birney requested that the DDA board refund all, or some, of the $94,000 the DDA will collect this fiscal year from the Orion Township Fire Millage.
They 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.
Barnett, however, says he does not have a conflict of interest being township supervisor and a DDA board member, and has volunteered on the DDA board since he was elected supervisor in 2012 without a conflict of interest ever being an issue.
Instead, Barnett says someone in the village, or on the DDA board, is angry that he questions them about following their own rules, especially when spending taxpayer funds.
“This has nothing to do with the request for the fire millage, in my opinion. I started asking questions and they didn’t like it and got more uncomfortable,” Barnett said. “The number one job of any board member on a board is to hold the people in the organization accountable. That’s my take. That’s why I serve on the board, because I love downtown Lake Orion. It’s not a township versus village thing. If we have a strong downtown, it’s good for the township and vice versa.”
Barnett added that there have been “some poor practices that have been happening. And I think a good way to summarize is they’re not looking for a DDA board that knows what’s going on. They’re looking for a rubber stamp. They’re not looking for board members to research, understand our funding sources, understand our fiduciary responsibilities.”
Now, the village will hold a public hearing to present its case against Barnett.
The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 29. Barnett has requested an in-person hearing open to the public.
The village, however, is still under its State of Emergency declaration, which does not expire until the end of June, and is still holding all meetings virtually, so there is still some debate on whether or not this hearing will be in-person. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved up the timeline to June 22 for the state to fully reopen.
Dan Kelly said he and Barnett should find out this week, possibly by Wednesday, if the hearing will be in-person or virtual; and if Barnett was granted more time to present his defense.
The Lake Orion Review will have an update and additional information to this story in the June 30 issue.
A representative of the village will present the village’s case against Barnett.
Barnett will be given 45 minutes to defend himself. He said he will vigorously defend himself and his name and has requested additional time to present his case.
“The arbitrary time limit of 45 minutes is insufficient to provide an appropriate defense,” township attorney Dan Kelly wrote in a response to the complaint sent by the village and its attorney.
When presenting his case, Barnett can call witnesses to testify and he has requested the entire DDA Board of Directors and Executive Director Molly LaLone be present at the hearing.
DDA board members will not vote on whether to remove Barnett from the board and, essentially, have no say in the matter.
After hearing from both sides, members of the Lake Orion Village Council will then act as the “jury” and vote on whether to remove Barnett from the DDA board.
On the advice of village attorney Mary Kucharek of Beier Howlett, P.C., the village council 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.
Councilmember Sarah Luchsinger, an attorney, cast the lone nay vote, saying the sum was excessive and advising the council to set a lower cap. Councilmember Jerry Narsh did not attend the meeting.
The village council also approved an invoice dated June 3, 2021, paying $1,823.25 to Beier Howlett law firm for phone calls between Kucharek and Young and LaLone, law and ethics reviews, drafting the notice letter and other research, totaling 11.3 hours.
Village Council President Ken Van Portfliet, who sits on the DDA board with Barnett, said that on the advice of legal counsel he will not respond to questions about the hearing until after it is finished.
The village sent a certified letter to Barnett, dated May 24, 2021, alleging there had been complaints against him “relating to your actions as a member of the Board of Directors for the Village of Lake Orion DDA.”
The complaints, sent on Village of Lake Orion letterhead, is signed by village Manager K. Joseph Young and village attorney Mary Kucharek and lists three complaints:
1. That Barnett, at the April 13 DDA meeting, violated Article III, Sec. 4 of the DDA Bylaws by having “a conflict of interest” and stated that he was “biased” when “trying to persuade your fellow Board members to pay monies to the Township of Lake Orion” and accused Barnett of ignoring his “fiduciary responsibility to the DDA.”
Barnett and Kelly point out that the DDA bylaws state: “Before casting a vote on a matter on which a member may reasonably have a conflict of interest, the member shall disclose the potential conflict…” The DDA board could then vote to have that member abstain from voting on the issue.
Barnett pointed out his potential conflict and the DDA board never called a vote on the issue; it merely engaged in a discussion.
2.That Barnett was in violation of state law MCL 15.181, Incompatible Public Offices. The complaint alleges that Barnett was “simultaneously attempting to perform the duties of both offices, which resulted in the subordination of your DDA board member position…”
Barnett and Kelly say the village and its attorney “either ignored or simply did not read the entire statute.” Kelly added that section 3 of the statute allows for a township supervisor to sit on a DDA board.
They also argue that just because Barnett questioned how the money was being spent and requesting it be given back to the fire department is not a “breach of duty of public office.”
3.That Barnett conducted himself “with a conflict with the discharge of your two official duties. Your employment as Supervisor impaired your judgement to act in performance of your official duty as a DDA Board member.”
Kelly said the village, again, ignored the Incompatible Public Offices Act and “recklessly alleges a violation of the Standards of Conduct for Public Officers and Employees Act, 15.342(6).