Gloves come off during Farmington Hills mayor forum

If Farmington HIlls mayoral candidates Vicki Barnett and Richard Lerner were wearing gloves, they came off at the close of an October 17 Council of Homeowners Associations candidate forum.

In his closing remarks, Lerner, who currently sits on city council, blasted a postcard sent by Barnett’s campaign and that of Theresa Rich, a write-in Farmington Hills city council candidate. The piece accuses Lerner and Mayor Ken Massey, who is term-limited this year and a candidate for city council, of “attempting to micromanage and improperly control” the Farmington Community Library.

On a campaign webpage devoted to what he calls “mudslinging”, Lerner questions meeting minutes referenced in postcard footnotes, and wrote that Barnett and Rich “neglected to share with readers that under the Michigan District Library Act of 1989, the Farmington Community Library is completely independent of local government… which makes their premise impossible.”

Rich and her council colleague Samantha Steckloff last year raised concerns over the city’s board and commission appointment process, after long-serving library board member Bruce Lazar was replaced with  vocal board critic Bill Largent. Since that time, the board has experienced a near-complete turnover, and library director Elyse Streit resigned.

Massey, now also a council candidate, said he appointed Largent to “shake things up” after he and other council members became frustrated over what they said was the library board’s lack of transparency in financial reports.

”I suppose I should be flattered that the worst dirt these two could dream up was to accuse me of ‘micromanaging and controlling the library’,” Lerner writes on the web page. “The problem is their ‘evidence’ – in tiny, tiny print in the footnotes – doesn’t support their narrative.”

Lerner said the meeting minutes deal with a controversial speaker selected for the Multicultural Multiracial Community Council (MCMR) 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, which was held at the Main Library.

“There are a total of 9 pages in 5 documents cited in Barnett & Rich’s footnotes. In those 9 pages, the only remark about the library attributed to me was when I relayed a resident complaint that the Board was not complying with the legal requirements of the Open Meetings Act: “Councilmember Lerner noted that the resident mentioned that the minutes never reflected the closing of the café.” Does that sound like micro-managing or controlling?”

Friends of the Library

To the recipients of the postcard, Barnett said, the footnote references would make sense. The former city council member and former mayor said the mailing went only to Friends of the Farmington Community Library.

“Those people know exactly what happened,” she said, noting all members received a letter last year that explained the controversy and the library board’s position. “It was intended to remind people of the genesis of the argument.”

It started, Barnett said, when a handful of residents protested the MLK Day speaker. She said that led to a council discussion about the MCMR and its value, which she saw as an effort to interfere with programming at the library.

Lerner said in an interview that MCMR planned the program, and the incident “has nothing to do with the library.”

A larger controversy erupted over the 2017 closing of Chapters Cafe at the Main Library, an area now devoted to vending machines and open meeting space. The owners had contracted with the library, turning over a percentage of their revenues for use of the space. But the cafe was frequently closed, which breached the contract, Barnett said.

Largent and others petitioned Farmington Hills and Farmington city councils to keep the cafe open and accused the library board of violating the Open Meetings Act (OMA), because there was no vote about the decision recorded in meeting minutes.

Barnett said allowing the contract to expire did not require board action and would not have been included in the minutes. She said she is more concerned with a “lack of transparency” in the way Largent was appointed, and the reason behind Massey’s recommendation.

“You don’t put somebody on the board to ‘shake things up’,” she said. “You put somebody on the board to make things better.”

City appointment process

The Farmington Hills city charter gives the mayor control over appointments. Barnett said when she was mayor, she would share her recommendations with her colleagues prior to the appointment vote and ask for feedback.

“There were times when I pulled names to make sure everybody on council was okay with it,” she said. “It was a more open process.”

Lerner pointed out that the process hasn’t changed – the mayor selects candidates and the council’s job is to approve or deny “based on whether the candidate is qualified.” He added that the vote to appoint Largent was unanimous.

Lerner said the library board members made a personal choice to resign over the “non-appointment”, and those who have since been appointed have addressed some critical, long-standing maintenance problems. The board also has formed new subcommittees in areas like personnel and facilities. 

“I think the board has some very qualified people on it,” he said. “They’ve taken the library in a new direction.”