Squabble over attorney firms not first in city’s history

Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR — The man in the middle of last week’s standoff between Mayor Jeffrey Lamarand and the City Council says the two sides will have to come to some sort of agreement soon in order to avoid repeating history.

Edward Plato, whom Lamarand is trying to remove as city attorney, has refused to step down since the mayor first tried to fire him earlier this month. Lamarand on Dec. 11 initiated a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court to oust Plato, who contends that the mayor lacks the authority to make such a change without the consent of the council.

Plato, a member of the law firm Johnson, Rosati, LaBarge, Aseltyne & Field P.C. of Farmington Hills, has said he is staying on because he believes the city charter requires him to do so until the council approves a replacement.

“It’s a dispute between the mayor and the City Council,” Plato said Tuesday. “The mayor has wanted to select a new attorney, but needs the council to do that.”

The current situation recalls the one that occurred in the city during the early 1980s, when then-newly elected Mayor Donald Zub wanted to oust then-City Attorney David Geiss in order to bring in a different attorney. The council voted 4-3 against the move initially, but after several months Zub finally convinced a council member to change his vote.

“That’s really what it takes, the mayor and the council working together,” Plato said. The most recent controversy began Dec. 1, when Lamarand brought Randall Pentiuk of Wyandotte law firm Pentiuk, Couvreur & Kobiljak to a study session and promised to ask the council to appoint him at its next meeting.

After discussion at the Dec. 15 City Council meeting, members voted 5-2 against dismissing Plato and against hiring the new firm. Only Council Chairwoman Cheryl Burke and Councilwoman Jill Brandana voted to approve the proposed appointment; Councilmen John Delo, Herman Ramik and Dennis Stapleton, along with Councilwoman Jacklyn Molner and Suzanne Weycker voted against it.

Plato said he has worked through part of the first administration of recently defeated Mayor Cameron Priebe, former Mayor Gregory Pitoniak and all of Priebe’s most recent term.

“I’ve been defending the city for almost 20 years,” Plato said.

Of the split council vote, he said, “I think the (members) that have worked closely with me know what I’ve done for city. I feel good about that.”

The lawsuit alleges that Plato has refused to return city files, still attends city meetings — including the Dec. 15 meeting where he moved his chair back into place after it had been pushed aside — and has told other outside attorneys that he is responsible for city legal matters.

Also at that meeting, Burke accused the five who voted to retain Plato with violating the state’s Open Meetings Act by unofficially meeting before voting. Pentiuk, meanwhile, has been handling city business since Lamarand’s original move. The mayor has said Pentiuk’s firm is on the city’s approved list of vendors based on other work.

Lamarand did not return a telephone call seeking comment for this story, but has said in published reports he made the move to fire Plato to help reduce legal fees after spending between $1.3 million and $1.5 million over five years. Lamarand also has said he intends to bring Pentiuk back for confirmation at the Jan. 5 council meeting.

Pentiuk also has been showing up to council and other city meetings, Plato said. “Obviously, that makes it more difficult to do my job and jeopardizes the city,” Plato said. “Hopefully this will be resolved sooner rather than later.

“I’ve suggested to both sides that they ought to try to work this out in the best interest of the city. But if it ends up that the council doesn’t want me there, I don’t want to be there.”