Former city commissioner accuses mayor of conflict of interest

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Local activist Richard Miller addresses the Wyandotte City Council Monday night while refuting former city official Michael Sexton’s conflict of interest charges against Mayor Joseph Peterson. City Attorney William Look (left), Peterson, City Clerk William Griggs, and council members Lawrence Stec, James DeSana and Sheri Sutherby-Fricke listen intently.

‘He’s had five years to bring this up. And all of a sudden when he doesn’t get reappointed and a friend of his is not going to get reappointed, tonight it comes out.’
— Richard Miller

Sunday Times Newspapers

WYANDOTTE – A former city official is alleging that Mayor Joseph Peterson has a conflict of interest because of the mayor’s position with the 27th District Court.

Others say, though, that it’s a case of “sour grapes” over not being reappointed to the city’s Police and Fire Commission.

Michael Sexton, a former member of the commission, said in an April 5 letter to Peterson and the City Council that it appears Peterson “knowingly and willfully” violated the state’s Incompatible Public Officers Act, or IPOA, as a past councilman and now as mayor while at the same time working as a court officer for the 27th District Court.

Sexton said in the letter that business commitments kept him from presenting the letter in person at Monday’s council meeting.

Peterson said emphatically that not only was Sexton’s “knowingly and willingly” accusation untrue, but that the key contentions were also untrue. The mayor said he talked to City Attorney William Look, present at Monday’s council meeting, before even running for the council to ascertain that his employment was not in conflict with his public service.

“I would like the opportunity to defend my integrity,” Peterson said. “I feel that the words ‘knowingly and willingly’ are so untrue. Before you write a letter slandering myself, you should at least know and find out if I did do (that).”

Peterson said he is not a court officer, but a contract probation officer, and that independent contractors do not fall under the jurisdiction of the IPOA.

“I had the same concerns when I decided to run for City Council,” Peterson said. “I have worked for the court for five and a half years now.”

The mayor said he has done nothing illegal. He also questioned why Sexton waited several years to level the accusation.

Local activist Richard Miller, who served as treasurer of Peterson’s council and mayoral campaigns, also said Monday that he confirmed the legal compatibility of Peterson’s employment with his potential elected position before he agreed to volunteer for the mayoral campaign.

Miller wondered why Sexton waited so long to make the complaint, and suggested his reasons were personally motivated.

“Mike Sexton was a police and fire commissioner, and if he was so concerned about this issue, where was this man when he was supposed to be enforcing the laws of our state and our city?” Miller asked. “If he felt that (Peterson) as the mayor or as a councilman was disobeying the law, why did he not bring this out and bring this forward at that time?

“He’s had five years to bring this up. And all of a sudden when he doesn’t get reappointed and a friend of his is not going to get reappointed tonight, it comes out. As a matter of fact, this letter is dated April 5, 2010 — the day after the mayor let his colleague know that he wasn’t going to be reappointed.

“So to me this letter is nothing but a letter of sour grapes.”

Sexton’s letter said the Michigan Attorney General’s Office issued an “opinion” in March 2009 in response to an inquiry from Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy pertaining to an individual holding two positions in city government. The individual in question was an elected City Council member and a full-time district court employee in Inkster.

Miller said it was not an official opinion from Attorney General Mike Cox, but a letter from Paula Manderfield, then deputy attorney general, who responded to an Inkster state representative’s request to the Attorney General’s Office specifically regarding the person in Inkster.

The subject of that inquiry served in a unit funded by the city. Miller said that situation was said to be problematic because of competing and conflicting interest over court funding, a city’s authority over funding the court officer’s position and the impact of the Inkster City Council’s funding decisions on court operations.

City Attorney William Look said the statute does not affect independent contractors, and that he doesn’t think the IPOA applies to the mayor’s situation.

The mayor assured residents he has done nothing illegal, and that he would do nothing to embarrass them.

Miller further said that Sexton did not like being videotaped as a police and fire commissioner, and would push his chair out of the sight line and not speak into the microphone.

“He didn’t even want to obey the Open Meetings Act himself,” said Miller, who handles video recording of city meetings for the local access cable television channel.

He said Sexton’s meetings as a commissioner would “continue at the bar” after official city meetings in violation of the act.

“After each and every meeting that I taped, him and his colleague would take their paperwork and walk straight across the street to the bar and continue their discussion, which is totally against the Open Meetings Act,” Miller said. “You cannot do this, and I even have a letter directly from the attorney general — not from a deputy, but directly from the attorney general — stating to call the police when I see such action.

“But what can you do when that’s the Police and Fire Commission?”