By ELENA DURNBAUGH
The Macomb Township Board of Trustees voted down a request to bring in outside legal counsel to investigate the conduct of the township’s human resources director and legal counsel, Thomas Esordi, in a 4-3 vote at the May 22 meeting.
The discussion surrounding the decision highlighted ongoing conflict between officials and alleged inconsistencies in the way the township conducts government business.
The request was brought to the board as a last-minute, add-on agenda item by Clerk Kristi Pozzi. She made a motion to hire Greg Meihn of Foley and Mansfield Law Firm to conduct an employee investigation on employee 2205, who was identified during the meeting as Esordi. Pozzi said that, in light of the complaints in recent weeks concerning allegations of a hostile working environment, the township should take action or risk being held liable for harassment.
Pozzi, along with Trustees Tim Bussineau and Kathy Smith, voted to support the motion, but it failed, with Trustees Roger Krzeminski and Nancy Nevers, Supervisor Janet Dunn, and Treasurer Karen Goodhue voting against it.
During a discussion of the motion, Goodhue asked Pozzi to provide an explanation for why she selected Meihn. Pozzi cited his previous work for the township and noted his experience and a recent award he received.
Dunn and Krzeminski both questioned Pozzi about the cost of bringing in outside legal counsel.
“You didn’t go out and bid on any of this, you just chose him?” Krzeminski asked.
Pozzi said that it was not township practice to get bids on legal counsel.
“I’m following the practice of the township at this current moment,” she said. “Mr. Esordi can contract out anybody he wants at any price without any approval. So I’m bringing it to the board. I think it’s very important. I think it’s worth any dollar that we spend on it.”
Before casting her vote, Goodhue said that she found the matter unethical. She later explained to the Gazette that she felt the board meeting was not the time or place for Pozzi to bring the motion forward.
“The clerk has put out rules as to when things are added to the agenda, and there’s not supposed to be anything put on the agenda at the last minute unless it’s an emergency,” Goodhue said. “She violated her own rules… We should never have even allowed that to happen, and shame on us for doing that.”
Bussineau also said that he had no idea the item would be on the agenda before the meeting.
Goodhue said that her primary objection to Pozzi’s motion was that she did not feel that it was the appropriate way to deal with employee matters, but she also did not think that Esordi should be investigated.
“His job is to look out for the best interest of the township as the legal counsel as an HR director,” she said. “There was an investigation done of a clerk employee that he had done at the request of board members, and I feel that she was upset by it, and it was kind of in retaliation.”
Goodhue is not the first to say that interpersonal conflict between Pozzi and Esordi may be contributing to strife in the township. Elections coordinator Meggan Young told the Gazette that she felt like Esordi was targeting the clerk’s department.
Goodhue said that she thought the investigation into Young was handled properly because, without it, the township could have set a precedence that it would have “paid for later on.”
When asked about others who had voiced disapproval with Esordi’s conduct, such as former planning director Patrick Meagher and former purchasing specialist Cynthia Carnes, Goodhue said that Esordi was not their main reason for leaving.
“[Meagher] did say that he felt that Tom was overburdened with work and sometimes wasn’t — sometimes things weren’t done in a timely manner of all the things he has to do. He did not resign because of Tom. Neither did Ms. Carnes. She made it sound that way, but in reality, she moved to a different state.” Goodhue said.
Similarly, when asked about union representatives and township managers who had voiced their disapproval of Esordi’s conduct, Goodhue said that it was connected to the outcome of union negotiations.
“We just got done with union negotiations. They’re tough, and Tom is tough. You know, he’s looking out for the best interest of the township,” she said. “They still got very reasonable raises, and I just think that they didn’t get what they wanted, but they were still very reasonable raises, something we can all live with, so, I’m sorry, but that’s my true belief. He’s tough, and that’s why we hired him.”
Legal invoice draws more questions from dissenting trustees
Following the vote against bringing in outside legal counsel, the board went on to review a legal invoice from Nemeth Law. The fees, in part, were associated with the investigation conducted on Meggan Young.
According to the invoice, the township was billed $440 for outside legal counsel to review documentation and develop a line of questioning for the investigation, and another $1,430 for outside legal counsel to appear and conduct the investigatory meeting.
“Mr. Krzeminski was concerned about how much an attorney would charge us to investigate all the allegations that have been brought before us in the last month and wanted to know how much that was going to cost. But yet, not bat an eyelash at the fact we paid $2,000 for outside legal counsel to conduct an investigative meeting on an employee,” Pozzi said. “I’m the elected official, that has been elected by the people to operate the business of the township. I don’t have the authority to bring in outside legal counsel to investigate the outlandish things that have been brought before us, but an employee of the township has the authority to do so.”
Bussineau referred to Esordi’s contract to highlight the inconsistencies in the township’s policies.
The HR/Legal Counsel contract states: “The employee in his capacity as general counsel shall have the authority and duty under the general direction of the township supervisors to contract with legal counsel when in the employee’s exercise of his or her legal discretion, such an arrangement is in the best interest of the township and/or legally required. Such retentions shall be subject to the board’s review.”
Bussineau said that the board had never reviewed any legal retentions chosen by Esordi.
“The only review that we’ve ever had is to review bills. That is the only review that has ever come to our attention,” Bussineau said. “With recent developments in our township, I think that line… needs to come to the forefront.”
Earlier in the meeting, during public comment, resident Frank Cusumano, who is an attorney, also drew attention to the line in Esordi’s contract.
“If the board says no to the Nemeth Law Firm’s legal bill, hasn’t Mr. Esordi already bound the township by a sensible agency to the contract for payment of their fees?” Cusumano asked.
When the invoice came to a vote, the motion to pay the bill passed 5-2, with Bussineau and Pozzi as the two dissenting votes.
During the second opportunity for public comment, Cusumano returned to the podium and continued to raise concerns about Esordi. Bussineau drew attention to the fact that Cusumano commented on an agenda item during the time for public comment on non-agenda items. He said this was the same offense that resident Jim Gelios had been gaveled for at the May 8 meeting.
“I want to know the rules,” Bussineau said. “I just want to see some consistency from meeting to meeting.”
Pozzi echoed those remarks.
“There is no consistency within the walls of this building on anything. And it is extremely frustrating,” she said.
Cusumano told the Gazette that he believes the Dunn allowed him to speak because he is already suing her for violating the Open Meetings Act by removing him from a public meeting last fall.
Residents are shaking their heads
Macomb Township residents Michael and Marilyn Holloway attended the board meeting to get a better understanding of what is going on at town hall.
“I think most of the residents can’t quite figure out exactly where he fits in the power of the township,” Marilyn Holloway said. “He sits up there. He’s the only department head that sits up there, so it’s never been explained why… There’s still so much that’s just gray.”
Michael Holloway agreed.
“There’s confusion, that’s all,” he said. “it’s got us shaking our heads, until next year.”
“I think it’s a distraction from township business, and, as you can see up there, you have some people that are going to support him no matter what,” Marilyn Holloway said.
According to Goodhue, the board is currently working on a solution to the situation in the township, but she declined to share further details.
“There’s two sides to every story,” Goodhue said. “Some of the things, I can’t tell you why I believe the way I do, but, like I said, we have to learn how to work together. Period.”
Watch the full meeting online here.