Appeals court ruling favors township
Dec. 20, 2012 PLYMOUTH EAGLE.
‘Township officials then increased the amount requested to 10 mills with the authority to levy the amount annually’
Three Michigan court of Appeals judges have ruled in favor of Plymouth Township, determining that the township had the authority to set the millage rate on a ballot proposal last February.
The question, requesting 10 mills for funding the fire department, was placed on the ballot only after the township and attorneys from the Citizens Action Group attended four court hearings. Judge Wendy Baxter sided with the Citizens Action Group and ordered the township to allow citizens to vote on the issue and acknowledge the more than 4.000 signatures on petitions the group had collected. Township officials then increased the amount requested to 10-mills with the authority to levy the amount annually. Judge Gershwin Drain of the Wayne County Circuit Court upheld the legality of the township action earlier this year and the decision of the appeals court last Friday con- firmed his decision in the matter.
The judges also said that the circulators of the petition, the Citizens Action Group, did not prove a violation of the constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances and to instruct representatives, as they claimed in their legal filings.
The Court of Appeals is an intermediate appellate court between the state trial court and the Michigan Supreme Court. Judges from the three of the four separate geographical districts, Kathleen Jansen, Karen Fort Hood, and David Sawyer, who rotate among panels, ruled on the Plymouth Township case less than one week after hearing arguments from attorneys for both sides..
The dispute began almost two years ago when the City of Plymouth notified the township that it would be withdrawing from the joint fire services agreement that had been in place for many years. The city move left a $925,000 deficit in the fire budget. Township officials opted to attempt to offset the deficit with personnel and service reductions.
In a petition drive in 2011, the Citizens Action Group of Plymouth Township collected more than 4,000 signatures from resident landowners, but failed to convince the township officials to create a special assessment district, or SAD, to raise funds to support the full-time professional fire department. Subsequently, the citizens’ group filed suit in Wayne County Circuit Court against Plymouth Township.
The group has argued that the failure of township officials to put the question on the ballot is a violation Michigan law and that the board members have unlawfully denied the public the right to vote on the issue. They also cited the personal animus on the part of some of the members of the township board toward the firefighters’ union. In their petition, the group stated that the township board members had failed in their clear legal duty under state law. The suit, filed by Plymouth attorney Lisa Stempien, alleged the township officials violated, “The rights of the Electorate of Plymouth Township for failure to honor petitions submitted by citizens seeking a vote on a dedicated 1-mill assessment to fund the fire department.”
The appeals court judges did not agree with their arguments and ruled that the township operated within legal parameters when increasing the millage, citing Michigan Compiled Laws 41.801.
The millage question failed at the polls Feb. 28 and the township subsequently laid off all but 11 firefighter paramedics and now uses on-call firefighters who can live as far as 15 miles outside the township. The township also closed the Lake Pointe Fire Station and rotates three of the on-call firefighters between the two stations. Medical transport and some emergency response in the community of 28,000 residents is now provided by Ann Arbor-based Huron Valley Ambulance.