$1M civil rights suit filed against Dayton Twp.

Photo by Tom Gilchrist • Dayton Township trustee James Satchel addresses the crowd at a 2014 Dayton Township meeting.
Photo by Tom Gilchrist • Dayton Township trustee James Satchel addresses the crowd at a 2014 Dayton Township meeting.

BAY CITY — Three residents have filed a $1 million federal civil rights lawsuit against Dayton Township, the culmination of what they call four years of discrimination, harassment, and humiliation.

The 41-page suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by James Satchel, Robert Adams, and Rod Merten.

The defendants are Dayton Township, Robert Cook, supervisor; Eleanor Kilmer, treasurer; Robert Steele, trustee; Amanda Gusek, clerk; and Chris Gusek, deputy clerk. Also named are former township clerks Michael Mocniak and Stacy Phillips.

The suit lists 10 counts related to what the plantiffs allege are violations of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Allegations run the gamut, from a racist sign the plaintiffs say was meant to intimidate to ignoring Freedom of Information Act requests and even a calculated plan to oust a board member who threatened “to reveal the public corruption.”

They seek an injunction to stop the defendants from engaging in what they view as unlawful disruption along with $1 million in damages resulting from “emotional distress,” among other things.

“The Federal District Court Civil Rights Complaint initiated by my clients is based upon the totality of the circumstances and not upon any one isolated incident,” said Brian Garner, attorney for Satchel, Adams, and Merten.

Cook and Steele did not return phone calls made by The Advertiser. Amanda Gusek said she hadn’t seen the suit yet so she didn’t want to comment. Mocniak didn’t return a phone message and Phillips didn’t respond to a message sent via Facebook.

Kilmer was reached by The Advertiser but said, “I can’t help you,” and hung up.

Garner said none of the plaintiffs would comment.

“My clients request that this matter not be tried in the press as they are confident in the merits of their case and in their ability to succeed in the court of law,” Garner said.

Satchel, 75, and Adams, 67, are African-American males. Merten, 67, is white. Identifying race is relevant due to the nature of the legal action.

The suit alleges problems started in 2012 when Satchel was elected by 58 votes to be a trustee, beating incumbent Mocniak to become the first African-American to hold office in Dayton Township. When Cook, Steele, and Kilmer were sworn in Nov. 14, 2012, Satchel was not invited, according to the suit.

Satchel alleges it was a calculated move to delay his swearing in and allow the seat to be filled by the board. Satchel ultimately went to the Tuscola County Clerk’s office Dec. 4, 2012, to be sworn in.

Problems allegedly continued with Satchel consistently not being given documents needed to perform his duties as a trustee until immediately prior to meetings.

Further, the lawsuit claims Satchel was accused of “causing problems” for asking about expenses that seemed excessive and questioning if a conflict of interest existed because Cook held four positions in the township: supervisor, zoning administrator, blight enforcement and land division. (Story continues below picture)

Dayton Township Board of Trustees in January of 2014
The Dayton Township board from 2014. From left to right, Kilmer, Phillips, Cook, Steele, Satchel.

The harassment became so bad, the suit claims, that Satchel and Adams filed police reports with the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Office due to “confrontation, harassment and verbal attacks” at an Oct. 7, 2014 meeting.

The suit claims the situation intensified when, on Dec. 15, 2014, a sign was erected on the property of Chris Gusek and Amanda Gusek – about 50 yards from Adams’ residence – that read “KKK Picnic.”

As The Advertiser reported at the time, the letters were painted red against a white background on a sign approximately three feet by four feet. The sign was located in a spot that Satchel and Adams – along with their families – would see going in and out of the Shay Lake subdivision, which is part of Dayton Township.

A “Neighborhood Watch” meeting was held Dec. 17, 2014. Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark Reene, Sheriff Lee Teschendorf, and about 25 others discussed the sign.

Yet, at the Jan. 5, 2015, regular board meeting, Cook read a letter of censure to Satchel calling out what the board identified as conduct “inappropriate of a board member, and requesting in the future Mr. Satchel uphold ethical values as named by the Institute for Global Ethics.”

The suit claims it was part of the board’s “true motive, which was to conspire against Mr. Satchel and force him out of office preventing him from exposing the long time corruption of the board.”

A month later, two recall petitions were filed against Satchel – both were rejected by the election commission.

“From March 31, 2015 through April 4, 2015, Mr. Satchel was hospitalized and diagnosed with blood clots which he believes were caused by the severe stress that he had been under due to the Defendants’ actions,” the suit reads.

When Adams and Merten filed their own recall petitions against Cooke and Steele, Mocniak – township clerk at the time – allegedly told Adams that Merten would be “the target of a ‘smear campaign’ in the local newspaper unless they agreed to stop the recalls of Cook and Steele.”

That recall petition was approved, but Adams and Merten dropped it, the suit says, “due to these threats and intimidation.” Satchel, meanwhile, was given another letter of censure.

The suit also claims the township simply ignored two requests made by Merten and Adams through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

There is also contention about the clerk’s position on the board.

Phillips had been clerk until she resigned in August, 2014. Satchel made a motion to appoint Merten as clerk, but it died with no support. Instead, Mocniak was appointed, only to resign May, 2015, and be replaced by Phillips, who resigned a second time last December.

Phillips was replaced by Amanda Gusek Jan. 4, who made her husband, Chris Gusek, deputy clerk. As The Advertiser reported Feb. 3, Chris Gusek threatened to “run over” a citizen who questioned the amount of pay his wife had received.

“Plaintiffs alleged that Chris Gusek has been enlisted by the board to strong arm and intimidate anyone, like Mr. Satchel, who threatens to reveal the public corruption precipitated by the board for years,” the suit reads.

The Guseks were given their positions in the township as a reward for Chris Gusek’s loyalty to the board, the suit claims, as he had “previously threatened Mr. Satchel.”

“Mr. Satchel was forced to resign his position as Dayton Township elected trustee on Jan. 4, 2016, due to the harassment, threats, and fear of physical harm,” according to the suit.

The counts filed by Satchel, Adams, and Merten against Dayton Township and the other defendants are:

  • Retaliation, conspiracy, and failure to prevent conspiracy for exercising First Amendment right of free speech in the right to vote and hold political office as applied through the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
  • Racial discrimination (along with conspiracy to commit and failure to prevent conspiracy) against plaintiffs’ right to vote and hold political office as applied through the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
  • Ethnic intimidation
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • Exemplary damages
  • Violation of plaintiff’s rights under the Michigan Constitution (along with conspiracy and failure to prevent conspiracy)

An answer to the complaint had not been filed as of press time.

Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com

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