Judge orders facilitation in township/village dispute

A circuit court judge last week put everything on hold and ordered Oxford Township and Village to enter into “facilitation” in an attempt to settle their legal dispute over the possible dissolution of the Oxford Public Fire and EMS Commission.
Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Potts issued a Nov. 26 order holding “in abeyance its rulings” on the township-village dispute.
“This matter is stayed pending completion of facilitation by the end of January 2004. The parties shall mutually select a facilitator by Friday, Dec. 12, 2003,” the order stated.
In facilitation, disputing parties mutually select a neutral third-party to help them reach a mutually agreeable, though non-binding, resolution to their problem. Without agreement on both sides, there can be no resolution.
Potts was asked to comment about the reasoning behind her order, however, a spokeperson for the judge declined on her behalf.
On July 23, the township filed a declaratory action against the village and OPFEC seeking a ruling as to how to dissolve the safety authority and divide the fire department’s assets.
According to township attorney Gary Rentrop the “central question” is “What is the consequence of the township’s withdrawal from OPFEC?”
The state law under which OPFEC was created (Public Act 57) states “nothing” about dissolution procedures, Rentrop said. The law simply states a party can withdraw from the authority, but it’s still liable for past debts.
The purpose of the township’s lawsuit is to determine if its withdrawal from OPFEC will bring about its dissolution or termination and the distribution of fire assets, Rentrop stated.
Supervisor Bill Dunn called the Potts’ order “ironic” because “the township proposed facilitation to the council six months ago and they rejected the idea.”
In a June 6 letter to the village council, Dunn wrote on behalf of the township, “We would be willing to enter into non-binding facilitative mediation with a mutually agreeable facilitator. We believe the full board and council should be participants in the facilitative process. . .If our suggested approach of facilitation is an acceptable concept to council, we would suggest that our respective attorneys recommend a structure for facilitative mediation.”
“All the judge is doing is ordering us to do what we suggested in the first place,” Dunn said. “I’ve got no problem with that. If it can get this thing solved, great. If it can’t, it’s back to the judge. Either way, there’s going to be a decision and some action taken.”
Village President Steve Allen said council rejected the township’s original offer of facilitation because “this was not our choice of tools for resolution.”
Prior to the township’s request for facilitation, Allen said council asked the township to enter into binding arbitration to settle the matter, but the township refused, he said.
“The ‘binding arbitration’ decision was the only methodology approved by council,” he said.
In arbitration, a neutral third-party usually agreed to by the disputing parties makes a binding decision to resolve the situation. The disputing parties must adhere to whatever the arbitrator decides.
“The village was interested in engaging in binding actions that could resolve the issue at hand,” the village president said. “For example, if you spend six months discussing a resolution to a dilemma, what good it it if both parties are not bound to the agreement?”
Dunn said the township board rejected the idea of binding arbitration out of its belief that elected officials should make these decisions rather than defering them to a third-party.
“In facilitation, you help come up with a solution, then you can choose to accept it or not,” the supervisor said. “But with arbitration, somebody else makes the decision and you’re stuck with it.”
As for the judge’s facilitation order, Allen said, “Council believes that given the current situation, this approach may yield the best results for the community. By Judge Potts ordering us to do this, with no preconceived results, it pushes the ultimate responsibility back into the community. That is where it belonged in the first place.”
“Council wants to believe that this (facilitation) will work, but time will tell if it really does. It will be very dependent on the cooperative desires of each involved. No community should ever want to have a court system, devoid of most important local knowledge and history, impose a plan for its health and safety. The final results of that course of action may well not be in the best interests of anyone,” Allen added.
Also held in abeyance by Potts’ court order is a Nov. 25 motion to intervene as a defendant in the township-village case filed by former Oxford Police Chief Gary Ford’s attorney, Ronald Zajac.
Ford is currently suing OPFEC, village and township for $189,652.38 in contractual damages stemming from an 1997-1999 employment agreement between the ex-chief and OPFEC’s predecessor, the Oxford Emergency Safety Authority.
In his brief supporting the motion to intervene, Zajac states that if dissolution of OPFEC is granted, Ford’s claims and/or rights to the safety authority’s assets would be “substantially impaired.”
Zajac argued Ford’s “rights are not adequately represented because if the Court grants dissolution of OPFEC, the Village of Oxford and the Township of Oxford would receive all of OPFEC’s assets.”
Zajac’s motion to intervene is based on MCR 2.209, which states “that a party has a right to intervene when the applicant claims an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the action and is so situated that the disposition of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede the applicant’s ability to protect that interest.”