Michigan Sometimes You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Vote, A Man In Oshtemo Township Is
In 2019 an Oshtemo Township man by the name of Tom Graham started his run for the Michigan House of Representatives. Once he got into the race and started to campaign, he found that many residents of Oshtemo Township were unhappy about the manner in which the township was attempting to implement a sewer expansion project. The township had just mailed about 900 residents a letter informing them that they would be required to connect to the sewer as soon as it was in the ground. An additional 300 residents were informed they had two years to connect because a sewer line already existed.
The connection privilege fees were between $9,000 and $14,000 depending on road frontage. It did not end there the residents would have to also pay a contractor to physically connect their house to the pipe, which he was informed in some cases totaled over $30,000. The residents who received the letter were incensed by the price, the mandate and the fact that they had not heard of a sewer expansion project even mentioned in the 7 years that the township says it had been planning the project.
Tom did not win his race but he did find another cause to fight for the people of Oshtemo Township.
In the summer of 2020, Oshtemo resident Tom Graham and several other fellow residents gathered enough signatures to put the then-controversial $10,000,000, phase I, sewer expansion bond question on the November 2020 ballot. Last November the township residents voted the Bond down by a comfortable margin. This year the township initiated a sewer survey of its residents and 58% stated that they were not interested in connecting to sewer, citing cost as the number one factor affecting their opinion. The township modified the capital improvement repayment plan placing more financial burden on the township residents at large, passing an annual $1,000,000 road millage and a flat $5,000 connection fee on individual property owners connecting to the sewer as well as an increased surcharge to all existing sewer users. The township then published a $30,000,000 bond notice to cover both phases I and phase II of the project.
Graham organized a second referendum petition signature drive to get Oshtemo's $30,000,000 sewer expansion bond on the May ballot, allowing residents to decide its fate. Graham recruited and organized volunteers who collected 2423 signatures when only 1832 were required. Graham turned the petition into the township clerk who rejected approximately half of the signatures for lack of valid notary signatures on an affidavit that must accompany each petition. The notaries did witness the circulators sign the affidavits and the notaries did sign the notary's certificates, but two of them did so in a way that the clerk thought the signature was missing. For one of the notaries, their printed name and signature did not match their application for commission, which the law requires they must.
The township believes that the invalid notary signature is a fatal flaw that invalidates the oath requirement of the Revised Municipal Finance Act (the statute) and thereby invalidates the referendum petition.
Graham argues that a notary public is a government officer commissioned by the Secretary of State and that a legal principle exists that a government officer performing their duty in error cannot invalidate a citizen referendum, otherwise the government would be able to invalidate any citizen referendum they wished.
Graham says "The township clerk literally took away every Oshtemo resident's right to vote on this issue due to a mistake a fellow government officer made. The government may not infringe on your core right to vote because of their own mistakes, especially since it's obvious the notary witnessed the circulator signing the affidavit."
Graham argues that even if the township is correct, and the statute must be complied with strictly, that would create an unconstitutional undue burden on the signature-gathering organization. "The purpose of the oath requirement is to prevent fraud. Because it would require the organization to validate all the signatures before taking the oath, under penalty of perjury, it is not narrowly tailored and is an undue burden to prevent fraud, and is therefore unconstitutional and the court would have to find the entire oath requirement unenforceable." This argument, however, is not "ripe" and may not be made in court until a judge rules that strict compliance actually applies to the statute.
Graham's ultimate goal is to have the sewer expansion project go forward, but paid for in a way that does not take perfectly working septic systems from the residents. Graham approached the township several times, met with Treasurer Buszka and Trustee Bell, then met with Supervisor Heiny-Cogswell and Clerk Farmer, asking them to consider allowing the residents to pay for or finance their individual section of the sewer expansion as soon as the pipes were in the ground but allow them to connect to the sewer line after their currently working septic systems failed. Graham showed how Gaines township pays for their sewers, using availability fees instead of connections fees and does not issue new septic permits to residents with available sewer lines and proposed Oshtemo use Gaines as a model.
The case Thomas Graham vs. Dusty Farmer was filed in Circuit court on Friday, November 19th. Because this issue must be handled in the courts, and Tom wished to hire an attorney to present it before the court there will be a significant cost to addressing this issue. Tom has not only invested quite a bit of his time but also used his own funds to bring this to the stage he is at today. He needs help to fund this endeavor. He has informed me that any additional funds donated to this cause and not spent will be donated to the Oshtemo Residents Association. They are a non-profit that coincidentally is also suing Oshtemo township because of their belief that the fees they are charging people connecting to existing pipes violate the Headlee Amendment of the Michigan Constitution.
To help Tom Graham fund the legal expanse for this cause, for not only himself but many other Oshtemo Township residents please go to: gofundme.com/f/helptomfightoshtemo