Augusta Township clerk faces recall election in February
Editor's note: This story has been edited to more accurately reflect the nature of a substance McDonald used in a protest.
Augusta Township Clerk Kathy Giszczak will face a recall election in February.
It’s the latest salvo in a dramatic six-year dispute over of the terms of viewing township minutes, which has involved lawsuits, personal protection orders and charged exchanges at the Board of Trustees' meetings.
Recall language and signed petitions were submitted by township resident C.J. McDonald and recently received final approval from the Washtenaw County Clerk’s Office.
The recall language alleges Giszczak refused to honor verbal requests to inspect original meeting minutes on 10 different occasions. Giszczak says the allegations are not true.
The special election will be held on Feb. 22 and cost the township up to $10,000. Giszczak has been township clerk since 2004 and was most recently re-elected in 2008. A recall effort against her failed in 2006.
McDonald said he made verbal requests to see the book of original minutes for 10 seconds to verify that it’s on site at the Augusta Township Hall. McDonald underscored he is only asking to check if the minutes are on site as he says the Open Meeting's Act allows him to do. He said he is not making a Freedom of Information Act Request, which he is barred from doing as the result of a previous court case.
In the recall language, McDonald wrote that there are “no rules established and recorded by the Township Board” to view the original minutes, which is required according a Michigan Attorney General's Office opinion on the issue.
Giszczak has maintained residents must make an appointment to see original minutes and allow a third party to be in the room while the minutes are viewed, if necessary.
In her 200-word justification filed with the County Clerk’s Office, Giszczak said requests to view original minutes are available through Township Board approved FOIA forms. She said state law requires those requests be made in writing.
She said she repeatedly made appointments for McDonald to view original minutes, but he often did not show up or left after he was informed a third party would be in the room with him. She added unofficial copies of the minutes are normally posted online and in the Township Hall the day after meetings.
McDonald sent the question of whether Giszczak can legally require appointments and require a third party to be in the room to State Rep. Alma Wheeler-Smith’s office, which forwarded it to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office last February.
While McDonald interprets the attorney general’s opinion as supporting his case, Giszczak claims it clearly states third parties can be present to protect the original minutes. The opinion also says there can be a reasonable period of time to allow for minutes' retrieval.
Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office previously said they only issue opinions on local issues, and those opinions do not carry the weight of law, therefore cannot be enforced either way.
McDonald said he submitted the recall language to the county clerk, but a small group of volunteers helped collect the required signatures and organize the effort. Those include outgoing Trustee Kathy Jackson; Trustee Mike King; Tanya McCune; Lynda Dew; Iva Bielec; Judy Thornton; Deb Fuqua; Kathleen McDonald, who is C.J. McDonald's wife, and Nathan Johnson.
Giszczak pointed out that many of the people involved in the group have lost to her or people she has campaigned for in recent elections. Jackson ran the failed recall campaign against Giszczak in 2006.
Giszczak believes the recall effort is due in part to her contacting authorities over alleged misconduct of some township officials.
“I’m interfering with their personal agendas that are not good for this township and they want me out, period,” she said, adding in her official written response that the recall "wastes taxpayers' money and disrupts my ability to serve residents."
McDonald and Giszczak have a long history of disputes over when McDonald and residents can view the official minutes. The more dramatic incidents were summarized in Giszczak’s 200-word response. On Feb. 15, one of the dates listed in the recall, McDonald was arrested by a Michigan State Police trooper for refusing to obey the trooper’s orders.
Township Treasurer Angela Sherbine called 911 after McDonald burst into Giszczak’s office and loudly demanded to see the original minutes, Giszczak said.
By McDonald’s account, the trooper asked him to leave the township hall, so McDonald parked his car and stood across the street. When the trooper asked him to leave that spot, MacDonald refused and was arrested. McDonald called his arrest unlawful.
That incident led Giszczak to seek a personal protection order against McDonald, which Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Archie Brown signed and remains in effect.
In 2008, McDonald sued the township for violating his FOIA rights while attempting to view original minutes. The case followed incidents in which township officials said he smelled strongly of dead fish when he showed up for a four-hour record-reviewing appointment with Giszczak. McDonald admitted to applying what he says was fish fertilizer.
A judge threw out that case out and the township countersued for costs. McDonald subsequently signed a consent judgment in which he relinquished his FOIA rights for life and agreed pay $5,000 in legal costs to Augusta Township.
McDonald said was misled by his attorney about content of the document. He said it was signed shortly after he had eye surgery, and he was having trouble reading.
McDonald hopes to appeal the consent judgment and is fighting the PPO. He alleges Giszczak lied under oath in her testimony about the Feb. 16 events, and the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office is reviewing the complaint. McDonald says he will continue to fight.
“My battle has been a six-year battle with this clerk and past supervisors where it has been virtually impossible to get information regarding anything,” he said. “She has sealed it off.”
Others besides McDonald have reported problems with trying to retrieve documents from the clerk’s office, including King. He said despite being an elected official, he is forced to file FOIA requests and wait for documents he needs to conduct township business.
He said elected officials are supposed to serve their constituents and he doesn’t believe Giszczak is serving the public well.
“Time and time again she has tried the patience of many residents when they have attempted to do business in the township,” King said. “It’s time for the residents to give her a performance review. That’s the only way for them to say ‘We’re not happy with the service you’re providing,’ or to say ‘I like what you’re doing.’"