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Court says Royal Oak veterans' quest to undo war memorial move can go on city ballots
Detroit Free Press - 7/31/2021
Military veterans and their supporters who sued Royal Oak over the 40-foot move of the city's war memorial won a resounding court victory Friday.
The ruling means that residents who vote in November are almost sure to see the veterans' ballot question, which seeks to move the monument 40 feet back to where it was.
It's the latest episode in a quirky two-year saga of increasingly bitter debate, stemming from a solemn pile of granite in downtown Royal Oak. The city-ordered move of the war memorial has become a rallying point for activists who for nearly a decade have tried to block the construction plans of incumbent city leaders and defeat them at the polls. The fresh brouhaha over the war memorial, they say, is giving them momentum for the city commission election this fall, as veterans groups have aligned with longtime foes of downtown redevelopment to support a slate of five candidates.
In Friday's ruling, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed 3-0 an Oakland Circuit judge's previous opinion in favor of the veterans, which the city appealed. Both rulings said the city had no basis for keeping the war memorial question off ballots, once the veterans groups had gathered more than enough signatures. Now, unless the city appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court, its charter says the elected city commission must decide by Aug. 6 whether to approve the veterans' proposal — which commissioners have strongly opposed for months — or let it appear on city ballots.
Chuck Semchena, a former elected commissioner and frequent critic of the city's current commission members, said he was one of three lawyers who worked for the veterans' side at no charge. Whether the commissioners approve the question in early August, or voters do so in November, the city would be required to move the monument back to its location opposite the steps of the Royal Oak Public Library, as well as to reinstall landscaping, walkways and lighting around it, Semchena said. The symbolic impact of the court's ruling against Royal Oak City Hall could help spark a political shake-up, Semchena said.
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"I think this is a turning point because the court is handing the right to decide things back to the residents," he said.
The challengers include mayoral candidate Tom Roth, commander of the American Legion post in Royal Oak. The post was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with the a Veterans of Foreign Wars post and a ballot proposal committee called Save the Veterans Memorial. The fresh court victory gives the challengers fresh momentum, Roth said Friday.
Reached at his fishing cabin in northern Michigan, Roth said: "In both the election and just for the monument itself, winning this means a lot to me. It just shows that the city really didn't care what the people thought" about moving the memorial.
The city had the granite monument moved May 26 by construction workers, as part of creating a 2-acre park in downtown Royal Oak. The park's design called for moving the war memorial and rebuilding its walkways, city leaders have repeatedly said, to create a better flow of pedestrians through the park, provide a site for the memorial that's sheltered from incompatible activities like skateboarding, and give better access to wheelchair users involved in memorial observances.
The veterans have protested the plan for nearly two years. They started with just a few critics but gained supporters as the issue became politicized, saying they liked the memorial's previous location and weren't consulted about the new site. In March, they began submitting petition signatures to the Royal Oak city clerk to get their question on the November ballot. On May 4, the city clerk informed the veterans that she'd validated 872 signatures on their petitions, more than the required 5% of voters who'd cast ballots in the city's last general election.
That meant their ballot question should qualify to be on November ballots, Royal Oak City Clerk Melanie Halas told them, according to emails cited in the lawsuit. Yet, a few hours later, Halas sent the organizers an email saying she "must reject the petition" because Royal Oak's interim city attorney had deemed it "legally insufficient." On May 25, the veterans and their supporters sued. The next day, the constructions workers moved the memorial.
Royal Oak Mayor Mike Fournier said Friday he hadn't seen the state Court of Appeals ruling and couldn't comment on it, nor on "any other legal options we might have."
But Fournier said he still believes that the city's decision-making process was correct in deciding to move the memorial.
"The design of our new park had a lot of input from residents," he said. "We involved everyone, including the veterans. We had over 1,500 participants" in surveys, meetings, committees and focus groups, said Fournier, who juggles being Royal Oak's part-time mayor with his full-time job as a sales executive for auto supplier Bosch, while he's also a husband and the father of children ages 8, 9 and 13.
"I've had veterans come to me saying they support the new park design, and saying they're upset about the people who sued the city," he said.
Supporters of the lawsuit have cited $40,000 as the estimated cost to move the memorial back to its previous location and renewing its surroundings. Fournier said he assumed the tab would be much higher, perhaps "hundreds of thousands of dollars" because "you'd have to tear out the new cement" that already has been laid for walkways in the new park.
Another member of the Royal Oak City Commission, Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Paruch, chaired the city's Downtown Park Task Force. The group reviewed residents' ideas for the new Centennial Park, discussed consultants' designs and made the determination in early 2020 that the stone memorial should move 40 feet east, Paruch said.
In an interview in March, Paruch said that the new park is "not just for veterans — it's for all of our residents."
Contact Bill Laitner: email@example.com
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