by ELENA DURNBAUGH
The Macomb Township Board of Trustees unanimously voted to bring in outside legal counsel to investigate the union grievance filed by the township human resource specialist during a three and a half hour board meeting Wednesday night.
The June 12 agenda originally included an item that provided the union with an opportunity to outline the grievance between the township human resource specialist, listed on the Macomb Township website as Sharalyn Arft, and Thomas Esordi, the township human resources director and legal counsel. According to union steward Charles Pierce, the presentation would have laid out what happened, explained why the union felt that employee rights were infringed upon, and would have asked the board to come to a resolution regarding the grievance.
The item never came before the board, though. At the beginning of the meeting, Trustee Roger Krzeminski made a motion to remove the grievance from the agenda because the union did not allow him to hear a tape that was going to be played during its presentation. The motion was supported by Trustee Nancy Nevers, but it never came to a vote. Township Supervisor Janet Dunn moved past the motion and called for other additions or deletions to the agenda. Nevertheless, the item was removed.
“Unfortunately, they chose not to hear it tonight,” Pierce said after the board meeting. “The fortunate aspect of that is that they are going to go get an outside counsel to do an investigation and hopefully they will do a thorough investigation, like should have been done, and come to a reasonable conclusion.”
During public comment, Pierce said that the collective bargaining agreement did not require the union to provide board members with any material for the hearing, but that it had provided a list of items for review prior to the meeting.
“We went through the steps appropriately to try and come to an agreement prior to ever coming to a board meeting,” Pierce told the Gazette. “The township took it upon itself to deny what we thought were valid claims, which is the reason why we came here tonight, and then they removed it.”
Pierce said that removing the grievance from the agenda was not in the collective bargaining agreement and that he wasn’t sure how that could be done at the meeting.
At the beginning of the meeting, Trustee Tim Bussineau proposed adding on an agenda item to request to bring in outside legal counsel to investigate the grievance. Treasurer Karen Goodhue raised concern that there were last-minute additions, but Clerk Kristi Pozzi clarified that Michigan Township Association policy allows board members to add additional business to the agenda up to the time the board approves the agenda at the meeting.
“I believe on this grievance issue, there is a conflict of interest,” Bussineau said during the meeting. “I think this board is going to have to turn to somebody, and I think our general counsel is well qualified, but can we turn to him at a point where there’s a conflict of interest… We need a general counsel to give an opinion on an HR action, and I’m just not comfortable with hearing this grievance without hearing some kind of outside legal opinion.”
Since the township planning director Patrick Meagher resigned in April, board members and community members have raised concerns about the dual nature of the HR/legal position Esordi occupies and have suggested that there is an inherent conflict of interest.
Last week, the township supervisor received a letter on behalf of Esordi from attorney Paul Cassidy. The letter advised board members to refrain from criticizing his client at public board meetings. In his letter, Cassidy said that in his opinion, there was no such conflict of interest in Esordi’s position.
“We’ve talked conflict of interest,” Bussineau said at the meeting, “but I think there is a big conflict of interest on this grievance.”
Trustee Nancy Nevers summarized a letter from former Macomb Township human resources director John Brogowicz that seemed to suggest that the supervisor could step in to remove any potential conflict.
“‘The supervisor could operate with outside counsel, but it wasn’t required. She or he could still do that if Mr. Esordi conflicted out. No difference, but even outside counsel represented the board, not the employee,’” Nevers read. “‘Same as now, bottom line, no conflict.’”
In a copy of the email Brogowicz sent to the board, which was obtained by the Gazette through FOIA, Brogowicz states that the township supervisor was ultimately responsible for addressing the subjects of harassment and hostile work environment. He said that this “ ‘check and balance’ approach in policy administration” was helpful in resolving disputes when the human resources director was involved. He never states whether the current situation was a conflict of interest.
In fact, in his letter, Brogowicz clearly states that he was only writing to provide information on how the Human Resources Department was previously run.
“I am not writing to debate the merits of bringing legal counsel into the Township nor combining the position with the Director of Human Resources,” Brogowicz said. “I am writing to you, the Board of Trustees, to provide relevant background information regarding the Human Resources Department.”
At the meeting, Bussineau questioned Nevers’ representation of the letter, and once again raised concern over who the board was going to turn to for legal advice on a grievance concerning Esordi.
“I’m going to need some guidance when we go through this grievance procedure because it’s the same person,” he said.
Trustee Kathy Smith voiced support for Bussineau’s request.
“I would have to agree with Mr. Bussineau on this, and in fairness to Mr. Esordi,” she said. “It’s just the fair thing to do.”
At the board meeting on May 22, Clerk Pozzi requested that the board hire outside legal counsel to investigate the conduct of Esordi. That action was voted down, with some board members objecting to unknown legal fees and others finding the request “unethical.”
On Wednesday night, the supervisor once again raised concerns about legal fees. Pozzi said that the services of attorney Greg Meihn would have cost the township a flat fee of $1,500 and again pointed out that the board paid over $1,800 for outside legal counsel to investigate a low-level employee.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the board easily voted for a $200,000 upcharge to break ground earlier for the Foss Park Plan.
Other members were concerned that an investigation would be handled unfairly. Nevers suggested that the township decide on which attorney to hire by pulling names out of a hat.
“I’m not afraid of anything coming out that would be a coverup of any kind, but I wish, and this is sophomoric, but I wish we could all play nice in the sandbox,” she said. “We were elected to get along.”
Pozzi also expressed her desire to be fair and said that she wished that the same fairness had been extended to her employee that was investigated by Esordi.
Smith volunteered to provide a list of names to the supervisor, and the supervisor suggested that the matter be postponed to the next board meeting.
“Can you guys make a decision?” one resident yelled from the audience.
Krzeminski made a motion to authorize the supervisor to find an outside labor attorney, and Pozzi added to the motion that the attorney be recommended by Smith.
The motion passed unanimously, but no deadline was set for action on the decision.
The Board of Trustees will meet again on Wednesday, June 26.