What is the Village of Lake Orion hiding?

A Lake Orion Review column by Editor Jim Newell

In our Democratic-Republic form of government it is not only permissible to question our leaders, it is our duty as citizens.

Why, village leaders, did you schedule and then cancel a public hearing to remove Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett from the Lake Orion Downtown Development Authority?

How much have you spent in attorney fees?

Why does the village and its attorney feel the village did nothing wrong?

Why would you not fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request about public funds being spent on attorney fees? What are you trying to hide?

Our leaders in the Village of Lake Orion, however, apparently don’t feel they need to answer tough questions. They’re above such mundane concepts like accountability, transparency and honesty.

Or if they do answer questions, they put whatever shiny spin on it they can because in Lake Orion we can never tell our residents that something might be amiss.

Do they think if they said, “Hey, these are our issues, they’re tough but we’re going to make a plan and work on them” that people wouldn’t understand and respect that?

But no, in Lake Orion everything always has to look perfect and the village can never shoulder the blame for any mistake.

And all this should make Lake Orion residents furious.

The village scheduled a public hearing for June 29 to remove Barnett from the Lake Orion Downtown Development Authority Board of Directors after he requested in April that the DDA board return some or all of the fire millage money the DDA captures, around $90,000, back to the fire department.

A person or persons complained about it being a conflict of interest and then the village and its attorney scheduled the public hearing. After Lake Orion Review articles about the issue, and Barnett publicly calling out the village for what he said amounted to an attack on his character, adding that the village tries to use the DDA as its piggybank and that this is retaliation for him questioning DDA bills, the village canceled the hearing.

Even though Barnett sits on the DDA board, it was the village/village council pursuing the public hearing based on complaints the village received. The DDA board literally had no say in the matter.

Why did the village cancel the hearing? We assume it was because the village received criticism and coverage that didn’t paint them in the greatest light. We’re not sure, though, because no village official will go on the record about the hearing that never happened.

Barnett has been volunteering his time since 2012 as a DDA board member. By the way, DDA board appointments are recommended by the village council president and approved by a majority vote of the council.

In April, Barnett requested the millage funds for the Orion Township Fire Department, saying that the DDA already refunds the police millage money (also around $90,000) to the Lake Orion Police Department and also pays money to the village for DPW services and contractual services provided by the village clerk and treasurer.

After the hearing was canceled, village officials refused to offer an explanation or apology, creating an even greater rift with the township.

Then there are the attorney bills.

Barnett questioned the bills after the village “mistakenly” submitted a bill to the DDA board to pay. Barnett caught it at a board meeting and the bill was given to the village for the council to approve.

But how much did the hearing that never happened cost?

We’re not sure because, as has become its customary practice, village leaders aren’t answering questions.

What’s the legal bill for? We don’t know because the Village of Lake Orion redacted all of the ‘Description of Services.’ The village also did not respond to answer one Freedom of Information Act request asking for the amount the village council spent on legal fees in June related to the canceled public hearing to remove Orion Twp. Supervisor Chris Barnett from the DDA board.

The Lake Orion Review filed two Freedom of Information Act requests with the village on July 16: one asking for itemized attorney bills for June from Beier Howlett, the village’s contracted law firm; and another asking for the amount that the village spent on attorney fees in June related to the public hearing to remove Barnett from the DDA board.

The FOIA requests stated that The Review was not asking for attorney opinions or privileged attorney-client communications – just the amount that the village spent on the preparation for the hearing.

The village had five business days to respond, and did so, requesting an additional 10 business days to either deny, partially deny or grant the FOIA requests. That deadline on Aug. 6 came and went without a word from the village.

For those who don’t know, failing to respond to a FOIA request can be construed as a denial of the request. However, under the Freedom of Information Act, the government is supposed to respond, even in the case of denial, and let the filer know that they can appeal the denial and how they can do so.

On Monday, after emailing the village, calling and going in person to village hall, The Review received the requested documents around 11:30 a.m.

Except that the requested itemized attorney bills were so heavily redacted that a child with a bottle of whiteout could have redacted the documents in 10 minutes. The village’s response to The Review’s FOIA request took more than three weeks.

And the village never answered the requested information about how much they spent on attorney fees in June related to the public hearing. The documents literally have the date, the initials of the attorney/associate and how much time they spent on a certain day doing work for the village. No explanation if it was for the public hearing, review of contracts or whatever.

So, based on the documents provided by the village, they spent at least $11,232.25 on attorney fees in June. Add that to the $1,025 for legal fees for the “judge” in the hearing that never happened and the $1,823.25 to Beier Howlett for legal fees in May about the public hearing you get a total of $14,080.50.

I guess since the village won’t provide the amount it spent on legal fees for the public hearing, we can just go with that number. Plus the $1,123 Orion Township spent on attorney fees.

The Village of Lake Orion: Your Tax Dollars at Work.

When The Review asked Barnett for the amount that Orion Township spent on attorney fees for the public hearing, he said, “I’ll get that for you” and did so within two days. No Freedom of Information Act Request necessary. No hassle. No excuses or attempts to dodge transparency.

At the July DDA board meeting there was a motion to release the itemized attorney bills so that board members could review the charges, and another so that board members could review the bills with the DDA and village treasurers. Both failed.

DDA Executive Director Molly LaLone told the board, based on the opinion of the attorney whose bills are in question – talk about conflict of interest – that individual board members were not entitled to get itemized attorney bills since the board as a whole, not the individual, is the “client.”

This after the village tried to pass off the May attorney bill to the DDA to pay, and after LaLone herself told her board at the July meeting that she had to remove some charges from the attorney bill that did not belong.

It is unconscionable for any board or council member to vote to approve paying a bill that they don’t know what they are paying for. As stewards of those funds, it is your duty to review and question the bills to ensure that public funds are being spent appropriately. It’s part of the job. If you got a $4,000 credit card bill, wouldn’t you want to know what was charged before you paid the bill? Why would it be any different for an attorney bill, especially when the DDA has been billed in error in the past?

DDA board members, we know most of you are not politicians and are good people who own businesses and/or reside in the village and are just volunteering on the board because you support the downtown and the business community.

Do what’s right, err on the side of transparency and make the bills public. You’re there to provide oversight and make sure tax dollars are being spent appropriately.

Problems like this persist in the village on a regular basis; where village officials pay lip service to concerned parties and then usually just ignore whatever was said when that person or group walks out the door. Ask the business owners who were told the village would create an events committee and parking committee to address their concerns on these issues. Both committees are now defunct.

But alas, this is their own little fiefdom. Village officials can operate with impunity because no one holds them accountable; or, the village says they will “look into it” and five years later the problem still isn’t resolved.

And council members never want to go on the record, because the horrible local media may “twist” their words. Message to the council: your lack of being forthright is what got you into this mess. Admit your mistakes, say you’re sorry for the way things were handled and try to move on.

But, if our village leaders cannot answer a simple question like, How much of taxpayer dollars did you spend on attorney fees for a public hearing that never happened? what are they going to do when they get a really hard question?

To be fair, most of the village council members were purposely kept uninformed about the nature of the public hearing to remove Barnett from the DDA board so that council members could remain impartial.

But they knew. They read the newspaper and talk to their friends and residents. Council President Ken Van Portfliet knew about it all along and to say that the village and township representatives have a history of disagreeing is an understatement.

And these were the people who were going to sit in judgment during the public hearing. This was a biased “jury” and a kangaroo court from the start. Talk about conflict of interest.

The village has irreparably damaged its relationship with the township at a time when residents need cooperation between their governments more than ever.

It’s time for residents to demand changes in not only the way village leadership operates, but a change in leadership. It’s time to demand resignations.

The business-as-usual system in Lake Orion has to end. There are four spots on the village council up for election in November 2022, and between now and then, there’s always the ability to file recall petitions.

It’s up to residents to decide if a more transparent council is worth the effort.



5 responses to “What is the Village of Lake Orion hiding?”

  1. Do you have to be a village resident to run.
    I was active on the chamber and downtown events.
    Now retired. I could do it.

    • Hello and thank you for posting on The Review website. Yes, you do have to be a village resident to run for village council.

      — Lake Orion Review

  2. Interesting, I’m having flashbacks of a similar situation in the Village of Oxford with Joe Young at the Helm!

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