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Warren City Council sues clerk over ballot question certification

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published August 18, 2020

 The Warren City Council has filed a lawsuit against City Clerk Sonja Buffa, alleging that she has failed to perform her “ministerial” duty required to put a mayoral term limits proposal on the ballot for the November election.

The Warren City Council has filed a lawsuit against City Clerk Sonja Buffa, alleging that she has failed to perform her “ministerial” duty required to put a mayoral term limits proposal on the ballot for the November election.

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 Buffa

Buffa

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“I would never sacrifice my position nor ignore the law. Unfortunately, the City Council members that voted to sue me have been blinded by their vision of the law and are attempting to bully and threaten me into violating the law. I look forward to the tr

Sonja Buffa, Warren City Clerk

WARREN — The Warren City Council has filed a lawsuit against City Clerk Sonja Buffa, alleging that she has failed to perform her “ministerial” duty required to put a mayoral term limits proposal on the ballot for the November election.

In June, council members voted 5-2 to place a measure on the ballot asking voters whether “the office of mayor should have the same term limits as the other city elected offices,” which remain set at three four-year terms or a total of 12 years, a limit originally put in place overwhelmingly by Warren voters in 1998.

Term limits for the mayor alone were changed by Warren voters in 2016, however, when the electorate narrowly approved a proposal included on the ballot of a sleepy primary election, permitting Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, or any of the city’s future mayors, to serve a maximum of five four-year terms or a total of 20 years in the office.

After approving the latest resolution in June with Councilman Ron Papandrea and Councilwoman Angelea Rogensues voting against it, the council unanimously voted to override a resulting veto from Fouts. According to the lawsuit filed in Macomb County Circuit Court on Aug. 17, the council’s resolution — which also directs the city clerk to “give notice of the election and notice of registration therefore in the manner prescribed by law and to take all action necessary to submit such charter amendment to the vote of the electors as required by law —  was certified later by Buffa and received by the City Council office by July 20.

The language was then sent to the offices of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state Attorney General Dana Nessel for review.

A letter from Whitmer’s office dated Aug. 12 indicated that the proposed language was approved pursuant to provisions of Michigan’s Home Rule City Act for submission to the voters during the Nov. 3 general election.

Attorney Jeffrey Schroder of the Plunkett Cooney law firm addressed council members during the special meeting on Aug. 15. The firm was hired by the Warren City Council as its special legal counsel earlier this year amid an ongoing dispute with city administrators over legal services provided through the office of City Attorney Ethan Vinson.

Before the approved language can appear on the ballot, Schroder said Buffa must certify the language to elections officials in the office of Macomb County Clerk Fred Miller. Schroder told council members that hasn’t happened.

“My review is that this is a ministerial duty by the clerk, who certified the original ballot language in the resolution that was presented to her after the council overrode the mayor’s veto,” Schroder said. “There’s no reason why this wording, after it’s been approved by the AG and the governor, should not be certified to the county clerk.”

Schroder added that the matter would have to be resolved by Sept. 4, according to county officials.

“We do have time, but we do not have a lot of time, and we cannot waste time, based on the judges’ schedules and everything else,” Schroder said.

While she declined an opportunity to discuss the specifics of her office’s actions regarding the matter, Buffa issued a statement on Aug. 18 addressing the lawsuit.

“I’m confident that my action as Warren City Clerk was in compliance with the Michigan Election Law. I was acting in accordance with the mandate of my office,” Buffa said. “I have devoted nearly 35 years of my life as a civil servant, and nearly 20 of those years were in the capacity of deputy city clerk and nearly one year as elected city clerk.

“I would never sacrifice my position nor ignore the law. Unfortunately, the City Council members that voted to sue me have been blinded by their vision of the law and are attempting to bully and threaten me into violating the law. I look forward to the truth being revealed in court. I am a professional and also look forward to working with them in the future years to come,” Buffa said.

The case has been assigned to Judge Edward Servitto. A hearing was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 24.

In an added twist, Schroder, a former assistant city attorney in Warren, sued the city and two police officers in federal court in 2012, alleging he was falsely arrested, jailed and prosecuted during a “paranoid” City Hall “witch hunt.”

The clerk case has been assigned to Judge Edward Servitto. A hearing was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 24.

For updates to this story, go to www.candgnews.com or follow the Warren Weekly on Facebook at www.facebook.com/warren weekly.

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