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September 24, 2008

Warren cop became mayor, made waves

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

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Former Mayor James Randlett spent two years at the city’s helm, the majority of which he and supporters said was spent fighting pitched battles with the local political establishment. Randlett upset longtime incumbent Mayor Ted Bates in 1981 and served two two-year terms before falling to then Council member Ronald Bonkowski in 1985.

A look at former Warren

Mayor James Randlett

WARREN – In the spring of 1981, many in Warren thought Ted Bates would be the city’s mayor for life.

That changed in November, when a 39-year-old Warren police officer named Jim Randlett defeated the incumbent Bates, the city’s leader for 14 years.

“I ran against him three times, in 1977, 1979 and 1981,” remembered Randlett, now 66 and a resident of Shelby Township. “The biggest problem over there was trying to clean up the government. That’s what I wanted to do. There were too many lobbyists. I would see favors, and so on and so forth, going on.”

A Warren police officer who moved to the city from Detroit in 1966, Randlett had served as a patrolman for eight years before his last political battle with Bates. Before the 1981 general election, he said, the mayor suspended him with pay for allegedly mixing political and police business.

Randlett said the move ultimately worked to his advantage.

“There was just a lot of problems that they had, and we capitalized on those,” Randlett said. “Probably the main reason [Bates lost] was that he fired me before the election.”

Another former Warren police officer, Tom Barwin, who later went on to enjoy a long career in city administration, managed Randlett’s campaign in 1981. Barwin later served as Ferndale’s city manager before taking a job in the Village of Oak Park, in suburban Chicago, where he still serves as the village’s manager.

“The former mayor, Ted Bates, was pretty much seen at the time as being the mayor for life. It was a stunning upset. Jim took office six days later,” Barwin said.

As the underdog in the race when he was suspended by Bates, Randlett closed a sizable gap after the primary to capitalize on his newfound momentum, Barwin said

“He made a lot of folks believe that he could actually win. It was a real boost for the campaign. Lots of volunteers came out,” Barwin remembered.

Once in office, Barwin said Randlett set about bucking Macomb County’s political establishment, something that Barwin said would ultimately limit Randlett’s tenure as mayor, his overall effectiveness and his relationship with the Warren City Council.

“The beauty in what Jim did is that he actually attempted to deliver on his campaign promises. We went out and recruited some outstanding professionals to head the city departments,” Barwin said. “They did a fine job while they were there, and went on to have outstanding careers when they left Warren.”

David Griem, now a prominent Detroit-area defense attorney, joined the office of the Warren City Attorney during Randlett’s administration, as did Judge Deborah Servitto. Randlett’s police and fire chiefs also went on to lead outstanding departments in other areas after serving the citizens of Warren.

But while Barwin said Randlett prided himself in his attempts to expose corruption in the city, his efforts ultimately contributed to his political downfall.

In his first term, Barwin said, Randlett helped to expose an attempted bribe perpetrated by an assistant with then Macomb County Prosecuting Attorney George Parris’s office.

He said the attempted bribe had nothing to do with the assistant’s role in Parris’ office, but that it would later resonate in county government.

“He was filmed by the state Attorney General’s Office’s Organized Crime Division attempting to bribe Jim, trying to keep a property off of the tax rolls,” Barwin said. “Jim had run a campaign against corruption, and after that arrest, he called for a grand jury. I don’t believe a grand jury was ever impaneled. That whole chapter resulted in the longtime prosecutor [Parris] being defeated at that time, and Carl Marlinga being elected. I think, at that time, the establishment committed to beating Jim Randlett.”

Another contributing factor to Randlett’s defeat in 1985 were his nearly constant squabbles with a Warren City Council loaded with strong personalities.

“He was definitely anti-establishment, no doubt about that,” said Richard Sabaugh, Warren’s current director of public service under Mayor Jim Fouts and a Macomb county commissioner when Randlett was elected. “There were a lot of things he did I guess that they didn’t want to do.”

Beginning in 1983, Randlett’s detractors on the council begin lining up against him: first, Floyd Underwood, whom Randlett defeated in 1983, and then Ron Bonkowski, who beat Randlett after a rough-and-tumble campaign.

“That was one of the things we wanted to avoid, but he was one of the guys who wasn’t getting things the way he wanted,” Randlett said. “He brought on a pretty good campaign and beat us. Then I went back to being a policeman.”

Randlett went on to spend another 16 years as a patrolman, the last five he said working as an evidence technician. He never took the civil service test, and said he never sought a promotion.

“I’d had enough of leadership. A lot of guys who went through that school were complete idiots,” Randlett said.

These days, Randlett said, he spends a lot of time doing projects for members of his family, who live near him in northern Macomb County.

He’s still married to his wife, Linda, of 45 years.

The Randletts have two children, James and Kimberly, and four grandchildren.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.