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

Small town soap opera

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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."

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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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