From left, attorneys Ronald Papandrea and Jeff Schroder appeared before Judge Joseph Toia in Macomb County Circuit Court March 6.

From left, attorneys Ronald Papandrea and Jeff Schroder appeared before Judge Joseph Toia in Macomb County Circuit Court March 6.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Court to decide if Fouts can seek another term as mayor

Term limits question again subject of legal debate ahead of 2023 election

By: Gena Johnson | Warren Weekly | Published March 21, 2023


WARREN/MOUNT CLEMENS — Time is ticking away for the court to decide if Warren Mayor James Fouts will be allowed to run for another term or if his time in office has reached the voter-approved limit.   

On March 6 in Macomb County Circuit Court, Judge Joseph Toia heard from attorneys in two cases filed by parties seeking an answer to that question. The cases now before the court are Ronald Papandrea v. Warren Election Commission, and the Warren City Council v. Sonja Buffa.

For the sake of judicial economy, the judge decided to consolidate the two cases. Attorneys on both sides want a decision made prior to April 25, which is the filing deadline for candidates seeking a place on the city of Warren’s 2023 ballot.   

“The two cases are seeking similar relief. They wanted to try to consolidate for the purposes of argument and establishing a briefing schedule,” Toia said.

Papandrea is a licensed attorney and currently a member of the Warren City Council representing District 1. He is representing himself in the case against the Election Commission. Buffa, who is Warren’s city clerk, City Assessor Jennifer Czeiszperger and City Attorney Ethan Vinson sit on the commission.    

According to Papandrea, he wants to keep what happened in the 2019 election from happening again this year.

“Four years ago, four incumbent candidates (on the Warren City Council ballot) were taken off the ballot due to term limits. Their removal from the ballot was after the filing deadline so nobody else could run,” Papandrea said. “You have a strong incumbent; you’re not going to run against that person. But if you know they’re going to be taken off the ballot, you would file.  The only people who filed were inferior candidates. And they got elected.”

As it now stands, Papandrea has opted to forgo another council run and instead is on the ballot this year for the top spot in Warren City government.

“I filed myself for mayor,” said Papandrea.

“All I want is a quick decision, so that people who want to run for mayor will know (if they should run). “Fouts cannot be beaten,” Papandrea added. “If he’s on the ballot, he’s going to win.”

Lawrence García represents Buffa and the Election Commission and would like to see the following result for his clients.   

“Clerk Buffa and the Warren Election Commission want the cases filed against them by Ron Papandrea and the Warren City Council dismissed. The Council has no standing — and no reason to sue other than spite,” García said. “Mr. Papandrea misunderstands the controlling law and mistakenly believes the last charter amendment should be given retroactive effect.”

Attorney Jeffrey Schroder, representing the Warren City Council in the case filed against Buffa, said, “The Warren Election Commission and the city clerk are both defendants in the case (Warren City Council v. Sonja Buffa) because they are violating the Warren city charter’s term limits that were approved by the voters.”

Schroder contends proper notice was not given before a meeting last November where the Election Commission reportedly determined that Fouts was eligible to run for an additional term.

“On Nov. 8, 2022, the date of the general election, the Election Commission met at 7:00 a.m. and certified the mayor to run for a fifth term in office for the 2023 city elections,” Schroder said.  “The notice for the meeting did not indicate that the Election Commission would decide issues for the 2023 city election.

“The Election Commission and the clerk have a legal obligation to follow the city charter and the will of the people who voted for term limits for the office of mayor,” said Schroder.

Both García and Papandrea addressed the court, asking the judge to be mindful of strict time constraints.

“Time is of the essence.” Garcia said. “I think it can be resolved quickly with the timelines.”

“This case will most likely go through appeals,” Papandrea said. “Allow time to go through the Court of Appeals.”

The judge assured counsel he would act in a timely manner.

“The delay will not come from me,” said Toia. “The delay will be how much time you each need to submit whatever writings that you’re going to submit.”


Term limits in Warren
Questions about term limits in Warren have gone before a judge — and the voters — several times since they were first enacted in 1998.

Most recently, in 2020, 67.8% of Warren voters approved mayoral term limits of three four-year terms, or 12 years.

That’s the limit that had been in place for city elected officials in Warren since 1998, when they were put in place with 77.6% of the voters.

The limits for the city’s mayors only, and not its other elected officers, were extended in 2016 by a narrower margin of 52.7% during a primary election with much lower turnout following a controversial opinion by former Warren City Attorney David Griem. In 2010, Griem wrote that a change to the city charter that reduced the size of the City Council from nine to seven members elected in five districts and two at-large seats created a bicameral legislature. He opined that the district and at-large seats were separate and distinct offices, and thus subject to a separate application of term limits.

His opinion, which withstood a legal challenge in 2015, was the impetus of the 2016 mayoral term limits proposal.

Griem’s interpretation was ultimately refuted, however, in 2019, when a Macomb County Circuit Court judge struck it down. The case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court and in the end, three City Council incumbents were removed from the ballot by the original application of term limits.