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Darth Vega Strikes back

Ever since the bitter labor dispute with the Detroit News, Free Press and Detroit Newspapers (which handles business operations for both dailies) broke out more than four years ago, union workers have been calling DN honcho Frank Vega by the nickname "Darth Vega." Showing a little in-your-face attitude, Vega returned the jibe by having some of the Star Wars sound track trumpeted through the Olympia Club at Joe Louis Arena earlier this month as he made his entrance to speak to the company’s circulation department.

Way to build that ol’ morale, Frank.

Then again, it appears Vega isn’t exactly expecting the troops to kick it into overdrive to help rebuild circulation figures that, according to union sources, are about 30 percent lower than when the strike (now a lockout) began.

How much of that would they like to recoup in 2000?

According to the source, Vega told workers the goal is to lift circulation of the combined Sunday edition by a whopping .2 percent (yeah, you’re reading correctly – that’s a big point two).

We did the math, came up with a ridiculously low number, then made some more calls, certain that the tip couldn’t be right. But our sources say its true. Which means Vega’s lofty goal is for circulation of the Sunday issue of the Detroit News-Free Press to increase a grand total of slightly more than 1,500 copies next year.

Go get ‘em, Darth.

Take a number and wait

From the justice delayed file comes an item about the Oakland County Employee Appeals Board, which for some time now has been moving at a pace that makes snails seem absolutely swift. We can’t say exactly how bad the situation is because, according to a personnel department spokesperson, the board doesn’t keep track of how many appeals it actually hears each year.

No sense keeping records that just make you look bad.

Karen Walker-Jones, Oakland County’s personnel department liaison to the appeals board, does acknowledge there’s been a slowdown, blaming scheduling conflicts for individual board members.

Longtime board member Jean Milton, who is critical of the situation, points out that there’s a backlog of 31 cases and notes that the board heard only "two or three" cases last year.

Not all employees are upset. Dennis Gabrian, attorney for the union representing sheriff’s deputies, says it’s not a problem that only one department employee went before the appeals board last year compared to the usual three to five; he says the sheriff’s department normally withholds discipline until after an appeal is heard.

So it’s no wonder they don’t mind.

Employees in other departments, however, are getting disciplined, and they aren’t at all happy about the long delays.

Steve Schell, president of the Oakland County Employees Union, says four members of his union have been waiting for more than a year to have their cases heard, even though their disciplinary actions involved written reprimands and suspensions.

According to Milton, a 1966 voter-mandated employee appeals procedure dictates that hearings be held "within a reasonable length of time" after an appeal is filed. That, obviously, is not happening, and the consequences can be dire.

"If you’ve been terminated for some reason ... you can lose your home and everything you own in a year and a half," Schell says.

Hitting the snooze button

After preservationists pleaded with it for more than a year, Pontiac City Council last week finally took official action to save the historic buildings that make up the former Clinton Valley Center mental hospital.

The council on Thursday passed a resolution calling for a demolition moratorium until city officials could meet with Gov. John Engler to discuss possible uses for the buildings.

Too bad they waited until the wrecking ball is already swinging.

A state contractor last week leveled a five-story tower connected to one of the rare 1870s buildings that are part of the complex.

"It appears they’ve been very deliberate about taking down what we really care about," said Pontiac architect Bruce Smith. However, he and wife Doris vow to continue to fight until only rubble remains.

Asked Friday how much of the precious architecture had been destroyed, Bruce Smith said, "Enough so I’m bleeding."

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