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

Small town soap opera

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?

The history of Oakley is as brief as a drive through the town.

Situated in a pocket of southwest Saginaw County, the area was originally called Mickleville, according to a historical account of Oakley by Alice Shindorf. It was named after Philip Mickle, who also opened a tavern in 1842. A quarter-century later, a plot of land was purchased and recorded as the Village of Oakley, in honor of a judge who was the uncle to one of the parcel's proprietors.

In 1880, Oakley had a population of 350. Today, that number is 286, according to recent estimates. In the 1880s, a glut of businesses dotted the landscape — two hardware stores, two grocery stores, two hotels, three dry-good stores, two drug stores, a wagon shop, and a couple blacksmith storefronts. Today, Oakley consists of one party store, two bars, a pair of churches, one hair salon, a tire shop, and one diner.

In other words, it's a quintessential small town. Everyone has grown old together, got drunk together, said prayers in the same church, and pumped gas at the Marathon station off M-52. They're a lively group.

And there has never been much crime to report.

"We had one police officer [on duty] for 50 years," says Patrick Coe, an Oakley resident. "And everything was fine." (Oakley has yet to respond to a public records request from MT for a summary of 911 calls made in 2014.)

One of those officers was former police Chief Larry Briggs, who was fired in late 2007 after being convicted of stalking a 21-year-old woman. The subsequent search for a replacement led to Reznick.

A town-established police commission conducted the search and, after a background check came up clean, offered Reznick the job, which paid $100 per month. (He now makes $500 a month for the part-time work, and previously earned an additional $46,000 serving as police chief for neighboring Waterloo Township until that town disbanded its police force.)

The donation drive for reserve officers started almost immediately after Reznick arrived.

Reznick has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including a stint as an undercover narcotics investigator in Genesee County. He worked as an officer in the Flushing Police Department in the '80s but left the department in 1992 as part of a lawsuit he filed against the city. It's unclear what Reznick alleged; the Flint Journal previously reported city officials are not allowed to discuss the reasons he left the department.

The chief's private-donation model of police funding emerged as he bounced around various departments after his departure from Flushing, during stops as chief in Coleman and the Village of Gaines. Those previous efforts were also the subject of intense scrutiny.

For example, a community police fund Reznick oversaw in Gaines, which also operated off private donations, was investigated by the state for misuse before it was shut down. The probe found "no basis for allegations" that Reznick and other village officials "had used the funds illegally," the Flint Journal reported. (In 2000, Reznick was fired from Gaines after a long-running dispute.)

The bigger looming question is how a small town in no-man's land can receive enough private donations through its police force to cover its annual budget and then some.

It's unclear exactly how Reznick has managed to rub shoulders with some of metro Detroit's wealthiest benefactors; he simply says he put out a call to friends he made over the years.

"There's nothing remarkable about it," he says. "I ask. I'm not bashful about asking. And you know what? I ask them to ask their friends and family members."

Reznick's contact with the region's powerful and elite who would one day fill his coffers can probably be traced to his job in the private sector. Since 1992, he has owned and operated a firm called Due Process of Michigan, which collects and seizes money or property from individuals on behalf of law firms. In legalese, it's known as "writs of execution." In layman's terms, it's known as debt collecting. In this arrangement, Reznick had the added benefit of being deputized as an officer of the state.

And Reznik was quite good at it, saying in one deposition that he has conducted "hundreds" of these searches over the years.

"I was a sheriff's deputy in numerous counties, and that's all you need to be to serve executions against property," Reznick said in the deposition he gave last year.

Thanks to this side-work — if you can call it that — Reznick is no stranger to depositions. Since 2007, he has been a named defendant in 27 federal cases related to his work with Due Process. Some cases have reached settlements, according to court records, but Reznick says he, nor Due Process, has ever paid a dime to end a case.

"Attorneys who obtained those writs of execution and their insurance company, I'm sure [they] settled but I know we never settled," he says.

Federal complaints and police reports paint the picture of an aggressive enforcer of the law, something corroborated by residents of Oakley MT spoke with. For example:

• A June 2004 article in the Flint Journal examined the work of Due Process. The owner of a real estate company hired Due Process to conduct an eviction of an apartment resident, something Reznick's firm was authorized to do by Lapeer County.

The owner of the company, Jeff Papadelis, told the newspaper he expected Due Process to charge $250 for its work, but in the end received a nearly $2,100 bill. When Due Process came to collect, Papadelis said Reznick and his crew acted like "thugs."

"They used strong-arm, thug-type tactics," Papadelis said. "I felt like I was dealing with the mob."

• In July 2004, Reznick's team was hired to execute a nearly $64,000 civil judgment against DaimlerChrysler at the company's headquarters in Auburn Hills. One of the officers from the Auburn Hills Police Department who responded to the scene wrote that he "didn't understand why a Genesee County Sheriff's Deputy with full arrest powers would be enforcing a court order issued by an Oakland County judge," according to an incident report from Auburn Hills police.

Later on, the officer spoke with Reznick about why he was at the auto giant's doorstep.

Reznick, according to the report, wasn't pleased by the officer's questioning, telling him, "[You're] stepping all over my dick here." Three years later, a Midland County sheriff explained that he didn't renew Reznick's license to seize property on behalf of the county after hearing about the Auburn Hills incident, which he described in a deposition as a "horror story" he was embarrassed by.

• In December 2006, Reznick was hired to seize property from a Sterling Heights woman, Cynthia Lekki. Upon arrival, "Reznick stated he was not leaving Ms. Lekki's home without either a flat-screen TV or a minimum of $2,000 dollars in cash," according to a federal complaint filed later by Lekki.

When the woman forked over $2,000, Reznick told her "he would be back for an additional $2,000 and that if he did not receive it he would kick in the front door of Ms. Lekki's home and remove everything from the house." The case was settled.

Reznick continues work with Due Process. He says he doesn't conduct "nearly as many" seizures as he used to but maintains the business on the side.

Ask some patrons of the Little Bar off M-52, and they'll tell you they never visit the Bittermans' Family Tavern anymore. Walk down the block to the Bittermans' watering hole, vice versa. There's a bitter tinge in the voices of residents when they get to talking about the police. Ask just about anyone, and they'd simply like their small town back, thank you very much.

The daily gripes aren't uncommon. Many residents, in the wake of media attention, don't feel comfortable giving their name (which is beautiful irony given the situation at hand), but routinely talk shop about Oakley's problems. Most just don't want to have their name involved in the hubbub. One business owner declines comment because of a landlord who harbors a view of Reznick unlike theirs. Some residents, chatting over beers at the Little Bar, simply believe the polarized environment stems from only two people in town — Reznick and Dennis Bitterman — like a divorced mom and dad pitting their kids against each other.

Bitterman has a history of discontent with Reznick. He believes Reznick excessively policed an annual motorcycle run at his bar for the past four years. He also believes the chief sent undercover reservists into his bar to find code violations. Reznick has reported several alleged violations to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, but records and published reports show Bitterman only admitted to one, for not posting an occupancy limit sign, a $50 fine. Bitterman has appealed separate citations on alleged topless activity, failure to make records available for inspection, and failure to cooperate with law enforcement officials. Prior to Reznick's arrival, the Family Tavern hadn't received a citation since receiving its license in 1982.

His litigious relationship with Reznick began in 2012.

Aileen Gengler, a bartender at the Family Tavern, accused Reznick of harassing her after the chief offered her a job as a private detective, which she declined. (Ever the persistent, generous fellow, he also offered her money to clean his house.) She said Reznick threatened to put her in the trunk of his vehicle, a point Reznick contends was a joke. Gengler said she took to carrying a knife with her when she left work because she was so afraid.

"It's all bullshit," Reznik says bluntly when asked about the allegations. "That's all I can tell you."

That 2012 lawsuit is still the subject of conversation among residents, and police reports and court records dating back as far as the 1990s show Reznick has been accused of similar issues in the past.

For example, in 2001, an Ypsilanti woman reported she was being harassed over the phone by Reznick, who was sent to collect a $660,000 civil judgment from the woman's husband of four months. The woman was home at the time Reznick and his team arrived to collect payment. She gave Reznick her number, according to a Michigan State Police incident report.

"On 11/30/01, at about 1:45 p.m. [the woman] stated that Mr. Reznick began to verbally discuss getting together with her," the report says. "She said that he said he was available and that she needs to leave her husband because he's an old man. [The woman] went on to say that Mr. Reznick stated that he [had] sex with other women and that it was fun to play."

Reznick told the state officer the woman opened up about her life as soon as he arrived, and that he "interacted and tried to be communicative." At no time, Reznick stated, did he talk to the woman in an inappropriate manner.

"Mr. Reznick immediately said that all calls to [the woman] will cease immediately," the report says.

For Trustee Koski, there's one specific incident in Oakley pertaining to Reznick that he says was particularly egregious, and it goes beyond legal fees or reservist names.

Simply put, a police department needs liability insurance to operate. And, for a period of time last year, Oakley wasn't covered.

Last July, the Michigan Municipal League announced it would cancel Oakley's coverage due to the reserve officer situation and the number of lawsuits lobbed at the village. In short order, officials worked feverishly to get coverage. Then-acting-President Sue Dingo unilaterally secured an insurance policy — except it didn't include liability coverage for Oakley police.

While that was happening, in September, the village board took the extraordinary step of disbanding the entire police department, until it received coverage.

"That's really what I've been beating the drum about, we have no insurance," Koski says. "When I took the police department to court [in September], that was because of insurance, that's why I did it."

In the meantime, the Saginaw County Sheriff's Department and Michigan State Police patrolled the town. Fish, the village president, says when the department was briefly disbanded, the number of breaking and entering incidents in Oakley dramatically spiked.

Then, again without the approval of the board, Dingo and Reznick made a decision to spend $25,000 of the chief's donations to insure Oakley police with a $500,000 deductible from Troy-based Doeren Mayhew.

Coincidentally or not, Richard Beamish, a tax shareholder at Doeren Mayhew, had previously donated to the Oakley Police Department.

Reznik's unique funding model works on its own playbook and has drawn attention not just from the media but other departments around the state and Attorney General Bill Schuette's office.

"I don't understand why more police chiefs haven't picked up on it and started doing it," Reznick says. "I've gotten at least 20 calls from communities not just in Michigan but out of state. I had one place in Florida saying, 'Would you be interested in flying out here and talking about your program?'"

But Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, says he's never heard of anything like it.

"If he's making the claim that they're totally funded by donations, that would also be the first department I'm aware of that's totally funded by donations in the state," he says.

Stevenson, Livonia's former police chief, says his reserves were sent to an academy, where they were required to receive training and graduate. Reznick contends his reserves receive ample training too. No reservists' conduct has ever been called into question, he claims, and adds that he has only dismissed seven reservists since the program began.

Oakley reserves must "serve an orientation period for a minimum of 144 days in which the Reserve Officer must spend a minimum of eight, eight-hour shifts assigned on-duty to patrol activities," according to the department policies and procedures obtained by MT. Reserves can only take enforcement action in the presence of a certified officer in the department, the policy says.

Oakley reserves must pass a written test, drug screening, background investigation, medical evaluation, and earn a training certificate or diploma, according to the policy. It stretches the limits of imagination to believe all reserves actually perform duties in the village each month; the policy allows for Reznick to grant "exceptions" to reserves on a number of rules and procedures. Again, working from his own playbook here.

"I think wherever you are in Michigan, you ought to have a right to know your police are adequately trained and properly sworn to do there job, and I don't think they should be secret," says Doreen Olko, Auburn Hills police Chief, who also serves on the board of the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES), which sets guidelines for the licensing of police officers.

"Police should not be secret — this is the United States. I don't think you ought to be able to pay a donation and receive a police badge."

Since last year, Olko and MCOLES have been investigating Reznick's department on whether it violates state guidelines for licensure of law enforcement officials.

In the opinion of Schuette's office, the answer to whether reservists in Oakley can legally serve under MCOLES' standards is clear. In a court filing last month made in support of the release of Oakley's police reserve list, the attorney general wrote, "The Oakley reserve officers are not authorized to perform law enforcement functions for the Oakley Police Force."

Though critics concede that donations have brought about some positive changes for the community, the question they've raised remains paramount: Who's representing Oakley here?

"I don't have a problem with the donations," says Koski, the Oakley trustee. "The problem I have is: Why does it have to be anonymous?"

It's not anonymous any longer, though.

The "dream team," as Reznick refers to them, is public record now. And let the record reflect that it is an interesting, motley list. (Oakley has released the names of about 150 people identfied as applicants who signed up to become a volunteer cop. It's unknown if all applicants became reservists.)

It includes Matt Cullen, president of Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures and CEO of M-1 Rail; Van Conway, the head of the bankruptcy specialist firm; Stuart Borman, of Farmer Jack; Jason Fox, a former Detroit Lion who now plays for the Miami Dolphins; Ray Jihad, owner of Royal Oak-based Target Sports; Max Aidenbaum, senior attorney at Dickinson Wright; and Herschel Fink, attorney for the Detroit Free Press.

It's Fink's presence on the list that sparked some of the most colorful commentary. Why was a high-profile First Amendment attorney dabbling as an auxiliary officer? And why was he defending the village's decision to not release the names of reservists, contrary to the opinion some of the most respected media attorneys in the state? Even more surprising was Fink's decision to invoke concerns of ISIS, of all things, as reason for Oakley trustees to withhold disclosure.

"How many cops have been killed by Islamic extremists, lone wolves?" Fink, who did not respond to MT's requests for comment, told a Saginaw News reporter last week. He added, (though the Oakley board's resolution to disclose names made no mention of it), that he believes Oakley trustees voted to release the addresses of reserve officers too: "It was outrageous, and I think it would've endangered the safety of my family."

Reznick is none too pleased that the list was released either.

The reservists "don't want people calling them up there, saying, 'Hey, you donated to Oakley, will you donate to us?'" he says. "A lot of people do the things they do for the right reasons. There's nothing surreptitious about it. If they don't participate [as a reservist] and they don't train and they don't do what they're supposed to do, we get rid of them."

Again and again, Reznick turns on the phrase "dream team" and says the reservists have "impeccable reputations."

"Where is the problem?" he asks. "I don't get it."

Inside the Crossroads Cafe diner, the village president utters a refrain echoed throughout Oakley.

"I just want my small town back to a small town," Fish says.

Though the list is public now, Bitterman and Koski are still intent on seeing their lawsuits against the town through to the end, so it doesn't appear that Fish will get his wish anytime soon. And the monetary drain on the town's coffers will continue.

In addition to his duties as president, Fish also spends an hour each day, seven days a week, operating the wastewater treatment facility in Oakley. This should pay him an additional $500 a week, but the money's not available right now.

"We don't have the funds for that yet," he says with a nervous chuckle over coffee at the cafe, which he also owns. "We have to work it in somehow, and we will, I'm sure. But there's no money. If we were to continue with Rob Reznick bringing in the donations and funding the police department, that police fund would help cover some of those expenses and get us through."

He pauses and gathers his thought. "We're not dependent on the donations but it could [lead] to that, which is a downside. It's already on [its] way there."

That dependency is at the heart of the opposition's worry.

"If I had to do it all over again, with all the crap that'd come with it, I'd still do it because it's a huge benefit to the community," Reznick says. "I think we've done nothing but good for that community. I think that the real story is in the program, this innovative forward-thinking program that more communities should grab."

Following the village meeting last month, Bitterman, Koski, and their supporters gathered inside the Family Tavern. The party of eight seated at a table in the middle of the room expound at length about their concerns. It's Tuesday night and the bar is serving 75-cent pints of beer; the soup du jour is homemade tomato basil.

"We all want this done," Koski says.

But, he continues, the soap opera won't come to an end until one actor is excused from the set.

"Till he's gone, it ain't gonna get back to normal," he says, avoiding a name.

His mother, Frances Koski, also a former Oakley trustee, isn't so coy.

"I'll tell you who," she says, "Rob Reznick."

[email protected]

About The Author

Ryan Felton

Ryan Felton was born in 1990 and spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Livonia. In 2009, after a short stint at Eastern Michigan University, he moved to Detroit where he has remained ever since. After graduating from Wayne State University’s journalism program, he went on to work as a staff writer...
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