Lawsuit filed in commission oath-taking saga

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — Add the Wayne County Circuit Court to the list of governmental bodies to hear arguments on whether Civil Service Commissioner Marjorie Powell should be allowed more time to take her oath of office.

In a recently filed lawsuit, local attorney and Powell-backer Morris Goodman contends the city could suffer irreparable harm if she is not allowed to finish out the remaining three years of her most recent appointment to the commission. Powell, a former two-term City Council president during the 1980s, was reappointed to the commission in May 2009, but never took her oath, which the city charter requires be taken within 10 days.

The commission itself and the council already have conducted votes on the matter. In May of this year the commission was split 2-2 on whether to reappoint her, meaning her seat technically remained vacant. The council subsequently voted 4-2 against extending the oath-taking window.

A court hearing scheduled for yesterday (after press time) was expected to determine whether to grant a temporary restraining order that would prevent the commission from filling Powell’s seat as other hearings related to the lawsuit are held, or pending another vote by council on whether to extend Powell’s time to take her oath.

Listed as defendant in the suit is the city, and the plaintiff is resident Joanne Arrick. Goodman said in an interview Thursday that Arrick offered to be a complainant in the suit after Powell decided against it.

“(Powell) said ‘I want to sue,’ and then I think it was the next day she called back and said, ‘I don’t want to sue’ because it was involving the city,’” Goodman said.

When asked if he was being compensated for taking the case, Goodman said he had been retained, but did not elaborate on the arrangement.

The complaint was filed under a relatively obscure legal doctrine known as quo warranto, which usually is used when a governmental or corporate official was not elected validly or wrongfully is exercising powers beyond those authorized.

In this instance, Goodman said, the city selectively enforced the oath-taking provision to settle a political score with Powell. He notes in the complaint that the issue didn’t come to light until Council President Thomas Tafelski alerted the Legal Department, only a day after the Powell-chaired commission ruled against an employee transfer he had requested.

Tafelski declined to comment on the suit.

The complaint also contends there are at least three other appointed city officers in recent years who were administered their oaths after the proscribed period had expired without getting council approval. And perhaps most consistently, the complaint blames City Clerk Kathleen Buda for not tracking Powell down to administer the oath.

“This is far from the first time there has been a problem with oaths getting administered in a timely fashion,” Goodman said.

Buda was out of the office last week and unavailable for comment, but Deputy City Clerk Lola Isiminger said it is established practice that whoever made an appointment – be it the council, the mayor, or a department head – would notify the clerk’s office to set up a time to take the oath. She said the clerk’s office never received anything from the Civil Service Commission’s secretary, city Human Resources Director Valerie Murphy-Goodrich.

City Attorney Debra Walling characterized the lawsuit as “sloppy” and has requested it be dimissed.

“We don’t see any merit to this claim whatsoever,” she said. “But like any case brought against the city, we will vigorously defend it in court.”