Category Archives: Freedom of Information Act

Attorney bills out of control in Oakland Township?

The cost for legal services in Oakland Township has doubled under the Board the citizens elected in 2012.  The yearly expenditure went from slightly over $100,000 to $200,000.  This post is intended to give the citizens some insight into what is driving that, how difficult is has been to find the information necessary to put this report together, and some specific recommendations for the Board to consider.

The yearly legal expense incurred by our Township Board has almost doubled since the existing Board came into office in 2012. One of the first actions that the new Board took was to replace the Legal firm that had been working for the Township for years.   The yearly legal expense to the Township increased at the same time this change occurred.  Here is a graph showing the historical fiscal year legal expense, as well as the budgeted amount for future years.

Oakland Township Legal expense

(Click on ‘Legal Fees Graph’ to view larger image)

Legal Fees Graph

In order to understand the reasons for the increase in the Board’s legal fees, a review of the legal bills was undertaken.  In looking at the readily available documents the Township posts, it became apparent that decisions had been made regarding how much information would be provided residents.  The information went from very vague and useless (prior to July 2, 2014), to fairly informative (July 2, 2014 to Feb 24, 2015), back to very vague and useless (after Feb 24, 2015).  Examples of this will be shared later in this post.

Supervisor Gonser’s actions may provide some insight into the apparent policy change on how much information was to be made available to the residents.

  • On March 24, 2015, Supervisor Gonser accused Trustee Buxar of inappropriately providing legal financial records to the author of this post.  His accusation was proven to be false, but more importantly it reflected his position on sharing legal financial information with residents. Here is a video of his accusation and the response.

At a public meeting that former State Representative McMillin had on March 28, 2014, Attorney Herschel Fink made it clear that citizens are legally allowed to review financial bills.  By his March 24, 2015 comments, Supervisor Gonser clearly indicates that he disagrees. Here is a video of Mr. Fink’s comments:


In order to obtain an understanding of what is driving the legal expenses for calendar year 2015, the author of this post FOIA’d all the bills from the Township Attorney.  The documents supplied were heavily ‘redacted’, but I was able to put together the following summary:

Here is a pie chart that shows the dollar amount and percentage of the year-to-date legal expense for the Board’s legal support and lawsuits in our Township:

2015 Legal fee percentages

(click on image to enlarge)

Several conclusions and comments regarding the findings:

  • Although there is a difference between the fiscal year and the calendar year for Oakland Township, the calendar year to date expenditure totals $87,000.  If that spending rate continues for the entire fiscal 2015-2016 fiscal year, we will spend $209,000 very close to the budgeted amount, but still twice what Oakland Township has historically spent for legal bills.
  • There is no documentation on how many hours the attorney has spent on Township business as part of the $9,000 per month retainer fee.  The retainer fee approach was instituted when this Board came into office.
  • 17% of the legal expense is due to ‘Labor and Employment’.  Much of this is due to the unionization efforts of Township employees that started when this Board came into office.
  • 14% of the legal expense is due to Oakland Township suing the Clinton River Watershed Council over the impact the removal of the dam had on the millrace and its property owners.  This issue, along with Blossom Ridge, was a campaign issue that helped many of the incumbent Board members get into office.
  • 4% of the legal expense is due to the decision the Board made to not consider using Detroit City water, hence driving the need to refund millions of dollars to developers and some property owners.

Why is this important to the citizens of Oakland Township? The citizens of Oakland Township elected most of our current Board (one was recently appointed when Maureen Thalmann resigned).  Some of the campaign items the Board ran on resulted in increased legal expenditures.  However, did the citizens recognize that our legal expenditures would double?  Has the Board and or Supervisor made decisions to make it difficult for citizens to understand where the legal expenses are being incurred? Is it consistent with their repeated claims about being transparent?

The contributing factors for the increase in expenditures appear to be:

  • The $9,000 per month retainer fee implemented by this Board. The $9,000 per month fee results in an annual expense of $108,000 – approximately the previous legal yearly expenditure which included litigation and labor.
  • Several Board decisions that are driving the litigation expense up.
  • The behavior of the Board that drove the employees to join unions, and the resultant increase in Labor legal expense.

All of these items are now history, and there is nothing we can do about it.  However, going forward, I believe the transparency of the legal bills needs to improve.  Citizens should not have to FOIA records to see what is driving the legal expenditures.

The attorneys for the City of Troy publish a quarterly Litigation report that is accessible to all citizens through the City’s website.  A copy of their May 13, 2015 report is shown here:

CIty of Troy 2015 first quarter Litigation report

Clearly that community’s leadership feels that litigation activities are important and deserve to be shared with their citizens.

Here are my specific recommendations that I would like the Board to consider:

  • The monthly Board packet should identify the plaintiff & defendant in each lawsuit, and the amount of money spent on each litigation item.
  • The Board should request an hourly summary of what all is being covered in the retainer fee.  We need to understand if we are “getting our money’s worth”.
  • A running tab should be created for each litigation issue, so the residents understand the total amount of money spent on each lawsuit we either initiated or are defending.
  • As part of the retainer fee service, our Township attorney should generate a quarterly report showing the status on all litigation activities (similar to Troy’s report).
  • The Board should ensure the Litigation report is posted on the Township website.

As mentioned above, here are examples of the transition of quality of information provided by the Township in their monthly packets over time.

FInancials over time

Richard Michalski


UPDATE: Judge Langford-Morris decision will be appealed

As stated in a recent post, Judge Langford-Morris was going to provide her written decision regarding the case between Mark Edwards and the Township of Oakland for alleged Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meeting Act violations.  Her written decision was provided today.  She determined that there were no FOIA or OMA violations.  Here is a copy of her written decision:


Marc Edwards has reviewed the decision, and will be initiating an Appeal to this decision.  He feels strongly that the citizens of Oakland Township have not properly been served by this decision.  He will continue his efforts to ensure that Justice is served regarding the facts in this case.

Richard Michalski

Judge’s written decision forthcoming on charges against Oakland Township

On January 8, 2014 there was a hearing in the Honorable Judge Denise Langford-Morris’ courtroom regarding the allegations made by Marc Edwards against Oakand Township for violating Freedom of Information and Open Meeting Act requirements.  Those allegations have been reported previously on this website.

After hearing the arguments made by both Mr. Edward’s attorney, and the Township’s attorney, Judge Morris commented:

“I have read the supplied documents on this case, and have heard the verbal arguments.  I will be providing a written judgement on this matter in the near future.”

There was a hearing on November 13 on this matter in Judge Langford- Morris’s court room.  At that time, she suggested that the Township and Mr. Edwards attempt to come to a mutually agreeable solution to this matter.  After several attempts, it became clear a settlement could not be worked out.  As a result, the matter returned to her courtroom on January 8th.

As soon as a written decision is provided, the results will be posted on this website.

Richard Michalski

Township’s alleged FOIA and OMA violations reviewed in Circuit Court


On November 13th, there was an Oakland County Circuit Court hearing on a civil suit raised by Mr. Marc Edwards, a former Township Board Trustee, against Oakland Township. The suit alleges that the Board of Oakland Township violated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) legal requirements in their response to Mr. Edwards’ request for documents.  The suit also alleges that there was an Open Meetings Act (OMA) violation that occurred during the development of the terms and conditions included in the Paint Creek Cider Mill concessionaire’s agreement signed earlier this year. 

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Denise Langford Morris was the presiding Judge at this hearing.  She approved a motion to give the attorney’s representing the Township and Mr. Edwards 30 days to come to some settlement agreement.  If no settlement agreement can be agreed upon, the case will come back to the court.

The results of the negotiations and possible court proceedings will be reported on this website.

There is a separate criminal investigation underway by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department regarding Open Meeting Act violations by our Township Board.  This website will also report on the status of that investigation as it unfolds.

Why is this important to the citizens of Oakland Township?  Civil and Criminal charges against the governing body of our Township are serious matters.  The judicial system will determine the merits of the allegations.  However, one wonders – Why would a Judge recommend that an out of court settlement be attempted if there was no evidence supporting the claims?

Richard Michalski

Supervisor Gonser’s definition of “transparency” in government

Oakland Township Supervisor Terry Gonser ran on a platform of  “transparency”.  Since he has come into office, the various governmental Board, Commission and Committee meetings are being broadcast live and are captured on video for playback on the Township website.  HOWEVER, the discussions between Board members that occur ‘behind the scenes’, and not on camera,  can be violations of the State’s Open Meeting Act, and certainly contribute to the amount of “transparency” in our Township governance.

In an April 6th document received through a Freedom of Information Act request, Supervisor Gonser responded to Treasurer Langlois discussing a concern raised by a citizen about how an  April 1 policy decision had been made.  The policy decison impacts the relationship between the Township Board and the separately elected Parks and Recreation Commission.

Here is Supervisor Gonser’s statement:

“While I am for transparency, there are policy decisions and strategies that must not be shared until after they have come to fruition. —-  I think we have to be careful as to what we circulate in emails.  Phone calls may be in order.”

Is this another way of saying “I am all for transparency unless there is something to hide”?

Why is this important to the Citizens of Oakland Township?  Transparency in government goes beyond having meetings videotaped.  The discussions that our leaders have on  decisions that affect Township residents are to be made in public, not on phone calls, and certainly not held back until the results “come to fruition”.

Do you agree with Supervisor Gonser’s definition of transparency?

For more information on the topic where Supervisor Gonser’s statement was made go to:

Richard Michalski