How one police chief and his 110 reserve officers have split the village of Oakley and its 286 residents

Small town soap opera

Mar 11, 2015 at 1:00 am

You'd be forgiven for being unable to point out the Village of Oakley on a map. The town of nearly 300 is a blip on the radar, distinguishable from the rest of the emptiness along M-52 only thanks to a pocket of businesses — D's Party Store, Crossroads Cafe, Studio 221 — and homes and streetlights that line the road, which serves as Main Street.

It's quiet. At least, it's supposed to be. In recent years, Oakley has become a breeding ground of controversy that feels diametrically opposed to its small-town status, but also fueled by it in some ways. That controversy has stemmed from the novel approach taken by the village's police chief, Rob Reznick, to fund his department, which he took over in 2008.

In short (though there's no short way of going about this), Reznick has solicited nearly $200,000 in donations from wealthy metro Detroit businesspeople — attorneys, doctors, political power players, professional athletes, and others — a group he calls a "dream team." As Reznick has put it, Oakley boasts the only self-funded police department in the state.

In exchange for their generous donations, some of the donors can then apply to become an unpaid reserve officer of the town. They receive a badge, uniform, and gun, which they pay for on their own dime ($1,300).

The chance to play real-life cop is draw enough, but there's a bonus in this arrangement: The auxiliary cops receive a special gun permit, allowing them to pack heat anytime, anywhere — churches, sports stadiums, casinos, you name it. Reznick equates the group to a cohort of volunteers who assist in the town during holiday events, cooking hot dogs or serving hot chocolate. Opponents see it another way: an under-trained cadre of 110 wannabe weekend-warrior cops anointed by a police chief running a village whose total population would be dwarfed by the attendance of your average Friday night high school football game.

This pseudo-privatization of the police department has accomplished a number of things for Oakley, financially speaking. For starters, the donations helped the village, which has an annual budget that tops out at $118,000, take a baby step into the 1990s: They funded the purchase of computers for the municipal building; prior to that, records were dutifully kept by hand using pen and paper. Reznick fixed the police department up with a new cruiser, golf cart, and firearms. Additional donations helped pay some of Oakley's bills, purchase a new playground, and covered the costs of a new "Welcome To Oakley" sign.

It also has nearly bankrupted the 1-square-mile town, located about 75 miles northwest of Detroit, thanks to intense litigation and a yearslong fight by Reznick to keep the identities of the 110 auxiliary cops secret. That battle, to the chief's dismay, has been lost.

Oakley is the defendant in a dozen active lawsuits, the majority of which have been filed by Dennis and Shannon Bitterman, the couple who owns the Family Tavern, one of two bars in town. Bitterman is also a town trustee.

It's not often anyone outside of reporters or attorneys talk much about public records or Michigan's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but thanks to the Bittermans and Oakley Trustee Francis "Fuzz" Koski, the hamlet has become surprisingly well-acquainted with the process, and frustrations, of governmental transparency with regards to records.

The lengthy effort to pry loose the names of the police reservists has become a fault line that has split the community in two, an ugly family feud that manifests in bitter proclamations and contentious, long-standing grudges.

Reznick's argument for secrecy is simple: Not only has he promised donors and reservists their names would be kept private, he contends their disclosure is exempt under Michigan's public records law. Some trustees back him up too, saying they made a commitment to Reznick's crew to protect the identities at all costs. Nonetheless, Reznick toyed with news outlets for months, dropping hints that NFL football players, big-name attorneys, and wealthy metro Detroit businessmen were a part of his crew. In turn, he's grown quite sour on the media.

"I don't really have any faith in reporters," Reznick says by phone.

While he doesn't make appearances any longer at Oakley's monthly Board of Trustees meeting, the discontent over intense media scrutiny is prevalent among some of Reznick's supporters who sit on the board. On a blustery, frigid February evening, the family feud plays out inside the bare-bones battleground of Village Hall.

"Every time I come, it's like the once-a-month soap opera," says Evelyn Goodrich, a 74-year-old Oakley native who pleads with the board to finally, please, clear the air.

The village board has called a special meeting this night to address the town's bountiful legal platter, the meat and potatoes of which mainly involve lawsuits related to FOIA requests. Thirty or so residents make up the curious gallery.

Bitterman, a jolly, portly figure who resembles a slightly more rugged Kenny Rogers, sports a camo cap and a shirt that reads "Don't Mess With the Family." He sits next to Koski along a plastic white table.

The seven trustees are split on the chief, emotionally and physically: At Bitterman's table, there's a unified voice to release the names. On the opposite side of the room, a trio of trustees (snidely dubbed by one resident in the audience as the "Amen Choir") vociferously objects. Sitting in between, like a referee, is Village President Rich Fish.

Early in the meeting, Koski presses village attorney Richard Hamilton with a convoluted question on the legality of Fish's recent decision to turn over the names of police donors to a local TV station. Active FOIA requests for the same information remain tied up in litigation, Koski points out.

Bitterman chimes in, "I thought the council is supposed to approve this stuff."

Hamilton balks at Koski's inquiry and addresses Bitterman's statement instead, saying it's the decision of Village Clerk Cheryl Bolf, who serves as Oakley's FOIA coordinator, to decide what gets distributed, not the Board of Trustees.

"I disagree with you," says Koski.

"Well, it's fine, you can disagree with me," Hamilton shoots back. "But when you get your law degree, and you have some authority behind you, then you can say that."

Later on, Bitterman lobs a pointed question at Hamilton, following the attorney's 180-degree turn in advice to release the names of donors. As a number of residents point out, Hamilton previously argued to protect the names, citing exemptions under Michigan statute.

"We should've just answered the FOIA in the first place," Bitterman says. "What was the sense of fighting?" (At this point, the Michigan Court of Appeals had already ruled that Oakley must release the names of donors and inactive reservists — while punting to the lower court to decide whether the names of active volunteer officers should be disclosed.)

Hamilton — who, in an ideal illustration of just how intertwined all the characters in this play are, has represented Reznick in lawsuits dating back to the 1990s — delineates his reasons once more. "My recommendation is we turn over the information in this litigation and move on with our lives," he says, emphasizing that Oakley still bears a risk in that reservists and donors could potentially sue for invasion of privacy.

It's a pragmatic decision, Hamilton says. There just aren't many options for a town with a tax base as small as Oakley's. While it's unclear how much the legal bills have cost Oakley so far, Fish later says they've already spent close to $7,000 this year, about 6 percent of the town's budget. It's only February.

A week later, in an act of self-preservation as much as anything else, the village would finally relent and release the list, the reluctant confessional culmination to two nasty years of stubborn secrecy.

But there was more at stake besides the names of wealthy, recognizable figures Reznick has courted over the years and Oakley's mounting legal fees. Some residents have raised equally significant questions: For example, who is this guy we put in charge?