Judge rules against fire petition drive
December 1, 2011 PLYMOUTH EAGLE.
Plymouth Township officials were not ordered by the Circuit Court to place a dedicated millage to support fire department services on the February ballot.
The Citizens Action Group of Plymouth Township had petitioned the court seeking the ballot question and an injunction to stop the layoffs and proposed cuts to fire services in the municipality. The arguments were heard by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Michael Sapala, who denied the group’s request saying that he did not have enough evidence to prove that the required 10 percent of landowners had signed petitions seeking the millage vote.
The group submitted more than 3,500 signatures to the board several weeks ago, but township officials questioned or disallowed many of them for various reasons including disputed ownership of
the property and, in one case, claiming a condominium owner did not actually own the land on which the residential unit was built.
“I need credible evidence concluding that we have 10 percent of owners. I don’t have that,” Sapala said in dismissing the citizens group case.
Marvin Stempien a retired circuit court judge, argued against township attorney Tim Cronin before Sapala. Following the judge’s ruling, Stempien said that the group would get the evidence the judge required and be back in court as soon as possible.
The group has argued that the failure of the township officials to put the question on the ballot is a violation of MCL 41.801 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 its clear legal duty under state law.
Those issues did not apparently sway Sapala, who ruled solely on the veracity and accuracy of the petitions. He was presented with a chart of the area, drawn by a township official, with color-coded property lines. In his ruling, the judge said he had no way of determining the accuracy of the petitions or the land masses in question. To force a mill- age question, 10 percent of affected landowners must sign a petition asking for a vote.
The dispute began about a year 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. In a move characterized as “cost-cut- ting” the City of Plymouth fire services will be provided by Northville.
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 and other cost-cutting efforts. The township is currently in negations with the firefighters union regarding wages and working conditions. The union has offered concessions, officials said, and a plan to help reduce or eliminate the deficit which the township has to date rejected.
Earlier this year, the township unsuccessfully negotiated a takeover of all fire department services with both Livonia and Canton Township, which would have eliminated all local township fire department personnel, including firefighters, paramedics and other employees. Those talks eventually failed.
Earlier this year, township officials also refused an $880,000 two-year grant federal grant for public safety due to requirements officials were not willing to meet regarding firefighters’ hours.
Stempien said the citizens’ group has only 20 days to complete the requirements for putting the question on the Feb. 28 ballot, but would continue their efforts.