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Livonia residents outraged by major attendance problem for Zoning Board of Appeals members

Board hasn't had meeting with all 7 members in attendance this year

LIVONIA, Mich. – A public hearing in Livonia got heated when angry and frustrated residents started shouting at city leaders.

The crowd was outraged that board members who are paid to debate zoning and building issues in the city don't show up to vote. They called the Local 4 Defenders, which started digging into attendance records and found a consistent and troubling pattern of absences in Livonia.

The Zoning Board of Appeals meets 23 times per year in Livonia, but this year, there hasn't been a single meeting with all seven appointees in attendance.

"It's a damn shame," one resident said. "You should be ashamed."

Angry residents blasted the board after its most recent meeting, which featured more no-shows from board members. The scene even spilled out into the hallway, where police stepped in to calm the situation.

The board members are appointed and paid to make important decisions in the city. When Local 4 went to Livonia for answers, we were directed to Michael Fisher, the city attorney.

"In the past six months or so, we have had a negative history of attendance, but I would not say that's true over a long period of time," Fisher said.

Last year, the full board only appeared for a vote five times. For residents who are trying to get approvals to building homes and businesses, it's a major problem.

The Schembri family wants an extra 400 square feet for a garage, but the project has been held up for more than 18 months awaiting the board's approval.

"It's been very frustrating," Vanessa Schembri said, adding that she has had "a lot of sleepless nights. It's just we've wanted to build our dream home and never thought that we would have the hard time we are having."

Her husband said the budget is blown, and if this continues they could lose the house.

"I worry about financials," Jeff Schembri said. "I'm paying on two homes, two property taxes. It's like they're doing it intentionally to dry me out and just give up, and I'm not giving up."

City officials said the family has asked for the delays, hoping to get a favorable board. They need four votes and said if all seven members were present, they would be approved. Members of the community are becoming suspicious.

"That's why people went crazy in there," Schembri family attorney Gregory J. Rohl said. "That's why people called on the news, if you will, to do what they do, to bring people under the spotlight, make sure they do what they're supposed to do."

According to attendance records provided by the city, in 2017, two members only attended 14 of 23 meetings, and another member only attended 13 of 23 meetings. There was a full board at about 22 percent of the meetings.

Fisher said part of the problem is that the board members are successful people who have busy schedules.

"Some of our most indispensable people are the ones who have struggled to attend," Fisher said.

As a result of Local 4's inquiry, Livonia is looking to add two alternates to the board who can fill in if a member is going to be absent, insisting the city wants to get it right.

Fisher said the problem will be resolved, insisting that if appointees won't show up, they will be replaced. He said all of the board members will be at the next meeting, which would be the first time this year.