Council again OKs mayoral term limits ballot proposal

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published April 15, 2016

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WARREN — For the second time in six weeks, a majority of the Warren City Council has voted to let residents decide whether the mayor should be able to serve five terms in office instead of three.

Despite objections from a small group of protesters gathered outside the entrance to the Warren Community Center’s auditorium, where the council’s meetings are held, council members voted 6-1 on April 12 to put the question on the ballot in August.

Previously, the council met in an adjacent conference room for a last-minute special meeting on March 1, where an incomplete group voted 4-1 to approve a resolution to put the mayoral term limits question on the ballot, along with separate proposals seeking renewals of the city’s public safety and residential streets millages. However, officials said earlier this month they were informed that a second vote was necessary because the office of Michigan’s attorney general indicated that a three-fifths majority vote of the council was required for approval.

Councilman Robert Boccomino, who said he called for the special meeting in March to discuss the term limits proposal, said he wasn’t in attendance at that meeting because he was caught in weather-related traffic. Council Secretary Kelly Colegio said she was called away for a family medical emergency.

Boccomino ultimately made the motion to approve the resolution when the full council met for the regular meeting on April 12. If ultimately approved by the state and Warren’s residents, the measure would undo a voter mandate from 1998, when 78 percent of the voters approved enacting term limits for all elected city offices.

Before the meeting, Boccomino said he simply wanted to let the voters again weigh in on the issue, now that term limits have been in place for a while. However, he declined a request from Councilman Scott Stevens to have the rest of the city’s elected offices — the clerk, treasurer, and council members serving in at-large and district seats — included in the proposal.

“What I’m saying is amend it so that everybody is included,” Stevens said.

But Boccomino added that he felt the term limit question for council members had already been defined.

“I understand your request, but I don’t accept it because it doesn’t seem, with the council in there, it doesn’t seem right to me,” Boccomino said. “The voters have already approved what the council can and cannot do.”

It was a legal opinion of former City Attorney David Griem that effectively changed the interpretation of term limits for members of the Warren City Council. In response to a request for clarity from a citizen in 2014, Griem ruled that the 2010 Warren charter amendment that cut the size of the council from nine to seven members and established seats representing individual districts and the city at large created a “bicameral legislature.” He further opined that voters had approved “separate and distinct legislative groups,” which he said were subject to separate limits of three four-year terms.

Attempts to challenge Griem’s controversial opinion in court were unsuccessful before the city elections last year and, as a result, two members of the council — Council President Cecil St. Pierre and Councilman Keith Sadowski — were permitted to seek re-election to another term in their respective districts, despite having been term-limited under the previous interpretation of the voter-approved charter provision.

At least for now, Warren voters will not be asked to consider amending term limits for the city’s elected clerk and treasurer. Officials serving in those capacities now and in the future would remain held to a limit of three four-year terms, unless that, too, is later changed. 

For his part, Mayor Jim Fouts has said that while he wasn’t behind the effort that could potentially lengthen his eligibility to serve at City Hall by eight years, he isn’t opposed to the idea.

“It’s fine. All this proposal was is for the voters to decide,” Fouts said after the council’s second vote. 

The protesters gathered outside of the Community Center ahead the vote to put the term limits proposal on the ballot held signs to support sticking to the rules approved overwhelmingly by Warren voters in 1998.

“The spirit of the law was term limits, and what they’re doing in there is they’re circumventing the voters,” said resident Dutch Wittbrodt. “I spent 22 years in the Marine Corps, and the worst enemy you had was an entrenched enemy. That’s what term limits mean: entrenched politicians. They get to know the inside game, and we don’t want that. Nobody wants that.”

Paul Kardasz, a candidate running for the 28th District of the Michigan House of Representatives, alleged that the council’s approval of the resolution to call a vote on the mayoral term limit issue was a political payback.

“I think this is the council returning the favor for what (Fouts)  allowed the city attorney to do last year by extending the term of office for two council members,” Kardasz said. “It’s important that the council knows that there are people in Warren, still here today, that want the term limits they originally voted on respected.

“What they did last year for Councilman St. Pierre and Councilman Sadowski was met with a lot of opposition, especially from the candidates that were running against them. To turn around and, for the second year in a row, to do this for the mayor, it indicates a lot of problems,” Kardasz said.

If finally approved, the mayoral term limits issue would go on the ballot for the primary election on Aug. 2.

Stevens also unsuccessfully sought to have the matter placed before the voters in November, when the turnout is expected to be much greater due to the presidential election.

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