West Bloomfield Vote
Board seeks to remove treasurer, Weingarden calls it a “witch hunt.”
During a contentious and emotionally charged board meeting last week, West Bloomfield Township officials voted to petition Gov. Rick Snyder to have Treasurer Teri Weingarden removed from office.
The township does not have removal power, but the governor does. According to state law, the governor may remove a township officer for cause. In this instance, the township board indicates it will provide arguments that allege a “willful neglect of duty,” one of several statutory reasons to remove an official. Weingarden will be given an opportunity to present a defense.
Five months ago, the board commissioned the law firm of Johnson, Rosati, Schultz & Joppich PC to investigate irregularities in the treasurer’s department.
The board decision was based on a 79-page report presented by attorney Christopher J. Johnson that documented several concerns about the treasurer’s investment, cash management and accounting procedures. The report alleges, among other claims, that there was a “willful neglect of duty.”
One of the main concerns in the report was a $2 million investment that Johnson deemed “very inappropriate” in terms of the township investment policy. The investment was subsequently canceled and the money was recovered; however, Johnson said he was concerned about similar mistakes in the future.
The report also documented two instances where wire-transferred money was credited instead of debited, and several other discrepancies in funding and cash management procedures.
Johnson, however, said he discovered no evidence of fraud or wrongdoing by the treasurer.
Calling the investigation a “political witch hunt,” Weingarden asked for the chance to respond to Johnson’s statements at the meeting.
“I was given no due process, no part in this investigation,” she said. “… he’s never spoken to my staff … this entire report is completely one-sided.”
At the board meeting, trustee Steven Kaplan, an attorney and former prosecutor, criticized Johnson for not including Weingarden’s input in his report. He said the temporary loss of two key positions in the treasurer’s office, the deputy treasurer and the cash manager, should have been taken into account.
“She lost her two top aides,” said Kaplan, who also questioned why Johnson’s report included a recommendation to remove Weingarden in addition to a summary of his findings.
Johnson said the problems he cited were still occurring even after the staffing issues had been resolved.
He also cited an incident on Oct. 9 when Weingarden closed her office at noon, leaving a handwritten sign stating the office was closed for “political reasons.” She said her staff was unable to work effectively because of the antagonistic atmosphere at Town Hall.
Weingarden later said she sent her staff home after Supervisor Michele Economou Ureste canceled a meeting that had been scheduled to address the concerns of the treasurer and her staff.
“We were unable to access certain information, and people in other departments were refusing to cooperate,” said Weingarden, adding that several employees complained about the “hostile” work environment. “We felt we couldn’t get our statutory work done, so when the supervisor canceled [the meeting], we went home. We were closed for four hours, and I apologize if anyone was inconvenienced.”
The motion to proceed with the treasurer’s removal passed by a 5-2 vote, with Weingarden and Kaplan dissenting.
‘Performance, Not Personal’
Trustees Larry Brown, Howard Rosen-berg and Diane Rosenfeld Swimmer said their criticisms about the treasurer were performance-related, not personal.
“With all the issues over the years, I have really lost my confidence in the skills of the treasurer and her ability to do her job,” said Brown, a CPA, at the meeting. Rosenberg said he was disheartened by Weingarden’s refusal to take responsibility for her actions.
Weingarden cited a shortage of personnel and a lack of cooperation from the Finance Department, which is supervised by Township Clerk Catherine Shaughnessy.
Economou Ureste said she was concerned Weingarden’s actions could jeopardize the financial stability of West Bloomfield, the fourth largest township in Michigan, with more than $60 million in its general fund and more than $100 million dollars in pension assets.
“The treasurer might consider this is not the right position for her, and she might consider stepping down,” said Ureste, who supported Weingarden’s re-election campaign in 2012 but said recent issues have made her change her mind about the treasurer’s competence.
During public comment, several residents expressed disappointment over the animosity between the elected officials. The treasurer’s husband, attorney Howard Weingarden, said he was “sickened” by the board’s actions. He called Shaughnessy the “ringleader” and said he will consider legal action regarding the defamatory statements made in the report and at the meeting.
“If you look at the facts, I’ve done nothing illegal, nothing unethical and nothing that has cost the township money,” said Teri Weingarden, adding the report had “nothing of substance” to substantiate the allegations it contained. “It was a lot of fluff meant to mislead the public.”
Weingarden cited a section in the report that stated she may have violated the township’s ethics policy by getting free theater tickets from an investment sales representative, an accusation she refuted with a receipt proving she had paid for the tickets to a Broadway show her husband and daughter attended. She said she had presented this receipt to the board when the subject had come up at a prior meeting.
“I think he [Johnson] has been very unethical,” she said. “The truth was not important.”
Officials estimated it could take a couple of months for Johnson to prepare a detailed petition for review by the governor, during which time Weingarden will continue her duties.
Johnson’s report also states the response timeline is up to the governor or his office.
Shaughnessy said she is concerned Weingarden will jeopardize the township’s finances if she is allowed to remain in office.
“There were things that were not in the report, such as the high concentration of risk regarding her investments,” Shaughnessy said.
Weingarden is worried the increasing acrimony among board members and employees will have a negative effect on the township.
“The public doesn’t want to watch us fight,” she said, “and the board is spending thousands of dollars on politics. I just want a detente so we can just come into work every day and do our jobs.”
By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer