Source: Sherman Publications

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Trail trouble
Local biz wants mgr. to retract allegedly defamatory statements

by CJ Carnacchio

June 26, 2013

If Polly Ann Trail Manager Juliane Bagley doesn't retract some allegedly defamatory statements she made regarding a local business and the work it did for the trail, she could find herself facing a lawsuit.

"There were a number of things that were alleged by Ms. Bagley that frankly, are not true and inaccurate," said Lake Orion attorney Ross Wilber, who's representing the Oxford-based Hi-Hill Lawn Service, owned by Steve Stoll. "I am asking Ms. Bagley to issue a retraction under Michigan law for the false statements that were made and conveyed."

Wilber addressed the issue during the Polly Ann Trailway Management Council's (PATMC) June 19 meeting.

He gave council a copy of a letter directing Bagley to cease and desist "from any further defamation" of Hi-Hill and Stoll, and issue a retraction of her "false statements." This retraction must be made in "a reasonable period of time," which Wilber defined as seven to 10 business days.

Bagley's statements submitted in writing as part of a contractor bid summary sheet at the May 15 trail meeting accused Hi-Hill and Stoll of not doing the work they were contracted to do, ignoring instructions, overcharging, refusing to communicate, having a potential conflict of interest involving the trail council chairman and exhibiting "intimidating and vengeful behavior" toward the trail manager.

"I don't know if there's some sort of a campaign or a vendetta or whatever you want to term it with respect to Mr. Stoll's company," Wilber said. "My clients are concerned because they've done work in this area. They've got (other) government contracts . . . My client's worried about future contracts certainly, worried about future dealings with this board and their work in the area."

Bagley did not attend last week's trail meeting as she was busy tending to her daughter's severe medical issues.

But she stands by her words.

When asked if she plans to retract them, she told this reporter, "Not at this time."

"I was just recounting my experiences with Steve (Stoll) and Hi-Hill," Bagley said. "All of this stuff can be proven."

"I had a terrible experience with Steve," she noted. "All of those things that I said are what happened. I did not want to work with him again. He's not good for the trail. He doesn't work well with others, me specifically. I don't know what the problem was."

Stoll, who denies all the allegations, said he will definitely take legal action against Bagley if she does not issue a retraction.

"To have somebody sit there and keep repeating that "Hi-Hill never calls us back, Hi-Hill didn't do this, Hi-Hill ripped us off would you want to call me for service?" he said.

"I can't have people saying that about me, especially if it's a lie," Stoll continued. "I've got a lot at stake here. I just can't have that kind of negativity going on. If you watch the video (of the May 15 meeting), you think, 'This guy's ripping off the Polly Ann Trail. Why do I want to deal with him?'"

Council stays out of it

Trail council members discussed the idea of possibly directing Bagley to retract her statements, but ultimately, there was a consensus against taking any action.

"We can't direct Juliane to do anything and as a council member, I'm not going to sit here right now and say what Juliane said was false because I don't know that," said Council Member Sue Bellairs, who represents Oxford Township. "I was not there. It's a he-said/she-said thing."

Mark Thurber, who represents Orion Township on the trail council, noted that Bagley was told at the May 15 meeting that she "acted inappropriately" by including such statements in the contractor bid summary and that her "comments were not appreciated." He believes that was enough and the council need not further involve itself.

"We've almost kind of washed our hands of it, and I would just hate to see us do anything to get ourselves back into it," he said.

Bellairs noted it was stated at the May 15 meeting that the trail council had "no problems" with the work that Hi-Hill had completed.

"Nobody said he did a shabby job," she said. "I said that myself at the meeting."

Bellairs agreed with taking no action.

"I just think we need to leave this alone," she said. "I don't know who's right in this situation as far as what was said or not said."

For the record

Wilber told the council he was there to "correct the record" regarding Bagley's verbal and written statements about his client.

"My client takes this very seriously because this is his livelihood and he's been doing this for a number of years," he said. "I think he's got a pretty good reputation and I don't want to see it damaged because we have published (statements) and proceedings that are (broadcast) on the local cable station."

At the May 19 meeting, Hi-Hill was one of two bidders for the 2013 trail maintenance contract. Hi-Hill maintained the trail in 2011 and chose not to bid for the job in 2012. The company was not awarded the contract for 2013.

Wilber attributed that result to Bagley's statements. However, he informed council that he wasn't there to convince it to reconsider its decision.

"I think this woman just tried to submarine (Hi-Hill) and in fact, did on this contract because their bid appeared to be lower," he told this reporter.

In her written bid summary, Bagley recommended to the trail council that Hi-Hill be excluded "from bidding on any future contracts for a period of at least three years."

"I was simply recounting my experience with (Stoll) as a contractor (for) the council, so they'd have that information when they made a decision on who I would be working with for 2013," Bagley told this reporter.

"Is it the truth? Yes. Can I prove it in writing? A lot of these things were (done) via phone calls or something like that. Do I have the time right now to pursue this? Not really (because of my daughter's medical situation)."

Bagley indicated she might still have some e-mails to support her statements.

When asked to provide them to this reporter, she indicated she would try her best, but added the caveat that the Polly Ann Trail's "e-mail server is not the greatest and it keeps going down. My access to my e-mail is not always reliable."

Battle of the bridge

Wilber cited Bagley's claim that Hi-Hill did not do any weed whipping or trail bridge maintenance in 2011 as an example of a false statement.

He provided the council with a June 19, 2013 letter from Oxford Village Ordinance Enforcement Officer Dan Durham stating this work was in fact being done two years ago when Hi-Hill held the contract.

"The area of the Polly Ann Trail that is in the village was maintained in good condition to the best of my memory for the growing season of 2011," Durham wrote. "I find nothing in my monthly reports to indicate that my memory is not correct."

Bagley stands by her statements.

"He did not mow the bridge or weed whip the bridge like I asked him to," she said.

Bagley said she asked Stoll to weed whip the bridge area and he told her "that's not part of my contract." As for the condition of the area, she said, "there were bushes and trees growing out of the bridge."

Overcharge or misunderstanding?

Bagley claimed that Stoll's proposal for the 2011 trail work was "inaccurate" and that he overcharged for his services.

In a nutshell, the 2011 request for proposal asked bidders to provide "the hourly rate to be charged for your other services."

Stoll wrote $35 in his response.

Bagley believed the $35 was a flat rate for Hi-Hills' work, no matter how many employees were used for a job.

But Stoll's $35-per-hour charge is actually per employee. So, if three employees are needed for a job, the cost is $35 per hour for each of them.

In 2011, Bagley requested some extra maintenance be done on trail prior to the Rural Pearl bicycle event. She indicated she didn't receive a quote for the job from Stoll, so she estimated it would cost about $3,000 based on the $35-per-hour rate and previous work performed by individuals doing courted-ordered community service on the trail.

Stoll billed the PATMC for $9,030 based on the $35-per-hour rate for each employee.

Records he provided this reporter show that two to three Hi-Hill employees spent 10 days (between Aug. 22 and Sept. 6) working on the trail, accumulating 258 man-hours.

But Bagley maintained the $35-per-hour charge was supposed to be flat rate and that Stoll's bid never indicated it was a per-man fee.

"I felt like he had overcharged $6,000 and he didn't charge the rate that was on his proposal," she said. "The council saw differently. They ended up paying him what he charged. I didn't agree with that. I thought we were being overcharged."

"There was no overcharging," said Stoll, who noted the $35-per-hour-per-employee charge is "scale."

Wilber called the trail council's bid application language "ambiguous" and indicated that was the real problem in this situation.

"At most, what you had was a misunderstanding that was fostered by a (bid) form that was poorly drafted," Wilber said. "(Bagley) misinterpreted what (Stoll) put down there, so when he sent in his invoice, she took the position that it was an overcharge."

The one thing both Bagley and Stoll can agree on is there was a definite lack of communication regarding the $9,030 job, however, each blames the other for it.

Intimidation or public comment?

The "intimidating and vengeful behavior" that Bagley accused Stoll of exhibiting toward her stemmed from his attendance at a manager's performance review meeting, which was open to the public.

Bagley said Stoll came to the meeting to convince the trail council to terminate her by going over the $9,030 billing dispute again.

"No one has ever done that in the history of the Polly Ann Trail Management Council," she said. "He's got it out for me, basically, is the way I feel . . . He tries to intimidate me by coming to my review meeting.

"It's my review meeting. It's not a Polly Ann Trail meeting. He came specifically to attack me at my review meeting and no one has ever done that at any trail manager review meeting, ever. It was just very unusual."

Stoll told this reporter his intention was to inform the trail council of the difficulties he had communicating with the manager.

"I wanted to make sure the board members knew what I had (gone) through," said Stoll, who noted he really didn't get to say much because the trail council indicated it was already aware of what had transpired and didn't feel it necessary to rehash it.

Stoll was within his rights to be there because it was a public meeting.

PATMC Chairman Ed Brakefield said it was Bagley's decision to have an open review.

"When it's a review, we'll ask Juliane in advance would she like the review meeting to be a private meeting, closed door, because it is her review or would she like it open to the public," he said. "Every time she said, 'I don't have anything to hide. Make it a public meeting.'"

Conflict of interest or temp job?

As she did in her written statements, Bagley noted she thought there might be a possible conflict of interest involving Brakefield and Stoll because the former "kept sticking up for" the latter.

"Ed used to work with him," Bagley said. "So, they are very close. They know each other very well."

"I questioned that," she said. "I said, 'Is there a conflict of interest here? What is your relationship to this guy?' Of course, Ed denied it, but there was some concern from other council members, too."

Brakefield explained that he briefly worked at Stoll's Burdick Street Landscape, Equipment and Supply in the summer of 2011. He worked there one day a week for about a month while another employee was off work due to a medical issue.

"One day a week doesn't really equate to a big job," Brakefield said. "I wouldn't classify that as me working for him. It was not a conflict of interest. Steve and I didn't talk Polly Ann (business) at all."

Contractors and council

Bagley, who's been a contract employee for the Polly Ann Trail since April 2011, noted she isn't pleased with the fact that it's the trail council that selects the other contractors.

"It's bad enough that as a contract worker, the Polly Ann Trail Management Council selects the (other) contractors that I work with," she said. "As a contract worker, I should be able to choose my own and that has not been the case."

"They've been the ones that have selected who I work with and that has not always worked out because they don't always pick the best person for the job."

"We didn't dictate to Juliane in any way," Brakefield said. "We followed her recommendation (with regard to the mowing contract)."

He noted that ultimately, it's the trail council's call as to who's hired because it's taxpayer money that's being spent.

"(Bagley) doesn't have the authority to spend taxpayer money. That's why there's elected officials on (the) Polly Ann (board)," Brakefield said. "When there's a signed contract and when there's money being spent, it has to go through council for approval."