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September 1, 2010

Council-changing proposal to appear on November ballot

Brian C. Louwers

C & G Staff Writer

WARREN — A proposal to cut the size of the Warren City Council from nine to seven members and to elect a majority of those members from yet-to-be-established districts across the city will go before voters in November.

Macomb County elections officials confirmed on Aug. 30 that they had received correspondence from the state regarding two related Warren ballot proposals aimed at amending the city’s charter. The proposals were the result of an initiatory petition circulated by the Warren Tea Party and signed by more than 4,900 registered voters who were verified through the office of Warren City Clerk Paul Wojno after the signatures were submitted on Aug. 4.

While the initiatives, which had been forwarded for review by the office of Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and Gov. Jennifer Granholm, raised questions among state officials about the proposed method of establishing five council districts in the city, Cox’s office concluded that they nonetheless passed muster under the Home Rule City Act.

As a result, county elections officials said the proposals would go on the ballot as-is in November, as required by law.

• The first proposal will ask voters whether the Warren City Council should be reduced from nine to seven members. Five of those members would file to run in specific districts, while the two remaining members would file to run in the city at-large. The proposal would amend the quorum requirement to four council members and would establish a simple majority vote as four out of seven members. Five votes out of seven would be required for a supermajority vote.

The proposal would also outline a commission to draw the new districts.

Vacancies among any at-large council members would be filled by the next highest vote-getter, while the City Council would appoint new members to fill vacancies arising in any of the five established districts. The city’s top vote-getter elected at-large would become the city’s mayor pro tem under the new plan.

• The second proposal, the passage of which is required for the first proposal to pass, simply asks whether five City Council members should be elected from single-member districts with the two remaining members elected at-large.

In a letter addressed to Granholm, Assistant Michigan Attorney General George Elworth said the responsibility for determining election districts would fall to the City Council under the HRCA. State law would seemingly trump the method outlined in the proposal, which called for the boundaries to be drawn by a five-member panel including the city’s Election Commission — Warren’s city clerk, attorney, and assessor — and two citizens appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

“If faced with this issue, it is likely that a court would find this charter-designated role of the proposed redistricting commission to be without legal effect since Section 36 of the HRCA provides that ‘no provision of any city charter shall conflict with or contravene the provisions of any general law of the state,’” Elworth said in the letter.

Supporters of the charter-amending proposals, including Warren Tea Party Director Michael Bertollini, have applauded the initiative as a way to save money by eliminating the salaries of two Warren City Council members, who each make about $27,500 annually plus limited benefits.

Bertollini, who could not be reached for comment about the placement of the proposals on the ballot, said previously that the changes, if approved, would also provide residents with “more direct representation for the entire city,” with council members elected from and representing districts in both north and south Warren.

All nine members of the Warren City Council currently reside north of I-696.

The Warren Tea Party is not affiliated with the national tea party movement or any other organizations bearing that name.

Some council members have publicly expressed their own misgivings about the proposals.

“I have no problem with what these people are doing. It’s their right. What bothers me, though, is people that don’t live in our city that are trying to change our government,” Warren City Council member Scott Stevens said.

Stevens addressed his concerns about the proposals and the group behind them in an e-mail addressed to members of the media in August. He said a majority of those who circulated the petitions for the Warren Tea Party do not live in Warren.

“I’m sure it wasn’t the intent of the Legislature to have people from other cities in the state, which wouldn’t be affected in their own hometown, making changes in Warren,” Steven said. “Why would people from another city be manipulating how your local government operates? Is there someone or some other group behind this, and if so, for what purpose?”

Stevens likened the Warren Tea Party to a “stealth operation” and questioned whether the proposals, if passed and put into action, would yield more direct representation as proponents claim.

“On first thought, one would think this makes for a more responsive council. But really it makes for a council that is more easily controlled by special interest,” Stevens said. “This initiative and style of statecraft is rooted in self interests, without regard for the interests of the citizens of Warren nor any moral or ethical strictures.”