In May, veterans heard something in Royal Oak they had not since the start of the pandemic — a parade honoring their service to the nation.
But veterans there said one group was not welcome at the event: Royal Oak officials, who had moved a war memorial honoring fallen service members. The relocation happened with almost no input from those who had worn the uniform.
“We tried numerous times to actually get our voice heard and it just wasn’t gonna happen,” says Tom Roth, who commands the American Legion post that includes Royal Oak. “They would not even respond to the letters, the emails, the phone calls. We didn’t get anything.”
Roth, who is challenging Mayor Mike Fournier in Tuesday’s election, says the monument — a polished stone structure etched with the names of Royal Oak veterans who died in wars — was moved by the city about 70 feet to help build a new park. It’s a relatively short distance that Roth maintains creates a huge difference in honoring veterans.
“It was right in front of the library where the steps were there and we could put thousands of people for our Memorial Day ceremonies, Veteran’s Day ceremonies. Now it’s surrounded by concrete right on the main walkway where they’re gonna have food trucks coming in for different events. To me it’s in an area where it could sustain damage.”
“In our opinion, going against the will of the 1,500 people that took the time to contribute their ideas during the community engagement process and certainly put the memorial in a very awkward spot that doesn’t give it the reverence and respect that it deserves.” —Royal Oak Mayor Mike Fournier
So Roth went to war — sort of. He led a petition drive to have voters decide in the November election where the memorial should be. The city denied the petition. Roth and his group sued — and won. The city appealed — and Roth’s group won that too.
Related: View WDET’s candidate guides for Royal Oak Mayor
He alleges that Royal Oak officials were not fighting fair.
“The city the next day actually moved the memorial anyhow, knowing that they had already been served, that we had sued them for the right to vote,” he says. “And now they started building everything out, basically making the move permanent and saying, ‘Hey listen…if we move it again it’s gonna cost us money.’ ”
Roth had already hastily assembled another list of signatures, enough to make himself a candidate to run for mayor in Royal Oak.
He says he has issues about the city’s increasing urbanization. But Roth says at the forefront of it all is the picture of the relocated war memorial.
“That was the tipping point,” Roth says. “I was already kind of irritated with a lot of what was happening. And then this just screamed in my face, you know, voter suppression. They’re not listening to people.”
“We’ll Let Voters Decide”
City officials counter that they did hear the voice of the people and acted accordingly. They say in 2018, more than 1,500 residents gave feedback about plans for the Barbara Hallman Memorial Plaza.
Aaron Filipski, the city planner of parks and recreation, says the people spoke and the new meeting area will be created in their image.
“I think having public input and the way we have to design this beautiful park to make it something that the community wants, we hit the nail right on the head, and made really good use of the space that we otherwise wouldn’t have in the middle of an urban area.”
The mixed-use space includes a climbing area and expanded seating. About 20% of the space is reserved as a dedication location for veterans. Royal Oak officials say that means it will comply with conditions set forth in an ordinance governing the area because the new location of the memorial will still be within the boundaries of Barbara Hallman Memorial Plaza.
Royal Oak Mayor Mike Fournier knows the issue is one of the chief reasons he’s being challenged in the general election. Fournier calls it an unfortunate attempt to divide voters in the city.
“Now it’s surrounded by concrete right on the main walkway where … it could sustain damage.” –Tom Roth, American Legion
“And it just doesn’t make sense, no matter which way you look at it, it doesn’t make sense,” Fouriner says. “But the petition is on the ballot. There was a group of folks that got the signatures to put it on the ballot. And so we’ll let voters decide and see what the outcome is.”
Fournier estimates building the park project will cost $5.5 million.
He says the consequence of moving the war memorial in the midst of that construction will hurt both taxpayers’ pocketbooks and the service members it honors.
“In our opinion, going against the will of the 1,500 people that took the time to contribute their ideas during the community engagement process and certainly put the memorial in a very awkward spot that doesn’t give it the reverence and respect that it deserves.”
Fournier says the city is confident voters will defeat the ballot proposal. He contends that many in Royal Oak are excited about a park designed to be used for the next century. Royal Oak voters will have the final say over the location of the memorial and who will sit in the mayor’s chair when Election Day arrives.
Listen: Move of veterans memorial stirs controversy in Royal Oak.