Council audience divided on Warren mayor, audio clips

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published January 25, 2017 | Updated January 27, 2017 2:18pm

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WARREN — More than 200 people crowded into the auditorium of the Warren Community Center Jan. 24, where City Council members heard from dozens who came to go on the record about Mayor Jim Fouts.

The comments, offered during the meeting’s segment set aside for audience participation, stretched over nearly three hours. Some angrily demanded the mayor’s resignation. Some stood firmly behind him. Some called for forgiveness. Many said they wanted more information about who leaked a series of controversial audio recordings that sound like Fouts disparaging black people, the mentally disabled and older women.

The meeting was a crescendo to an eight-day firestorm that began when the latest round of unsourced, unverified audio recordings were leaked online by Motor City Muckraker. The clips, in which a voice that sounds like Fouts uses the N-word and compares black people to “chimps,” were released Jan. 16, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, minutes before Fouts took the stage for an event at City Hall alongside local pastors and black leaders. 

“I’m here to protest Mayor Jim Fouts,” said Elaine Stusick-Zieme, a 62-year resident of Warren, who said she had petitioned her church to “remove this bigot.”

“You will not ruin the great city of Warren,” Stusick-Zieme said. “We’re here to protect it. I’m 70. My mother lived to 94. I will make it to 104 and fight all of you. We will win. Take him out now.”

Chris Hartman, a retired Warren firefighter, said he would stop short of asking the mayor to resign, but expressed concern about the potential for lost investments and a tarnished image that could impact the city moving forward. He called on Fouts to step forward and address the recordings directly.

“It’s sad, and I’d just like the mayor to live up to what he goes by,” Hartman said. “The buck stops here, and the mayor belongs up on this stage to be held accountable.”

Still, others said they believe the mayor, who has maintained that the words are not his. Since the controversy began in December, Fouts has consistently said the recordings are “phony” and “doctored” by his political enemies, including Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

The first set of recordings include a voice that sounds like Fouts lamenting his attendance at an event “for the retards in the area” and even stating, “I wish them well in a cage.”

Hackel said previously that he released the first set of clips to one reporter after they were given to him by an associate who got them from an unspecified third party.  Fouts said the recordings were released a day after he asked Michigan Attorney Bill Schuette to probe what he has called the cover-up of illegal dumping and an “environmental scandal” on a closed landfill site at Freedom Hill County Park in Sterling Heights. The mayor also asked the state to look into Hackel’s relationship with a contractor that dumped up to 150,000 cubic yards of soil at the site, originally without a permit.  

Several religious leaders from Detroit, including Pastor Maurice Hardwick and Reverend W.J. Rideout III, addressed the crowd and called on the mayor to step down, as they did immediately after the release of the recordings on Jan. 16. 

Other pastors, including several who lead Warren-based congregations, joined a group of residents who cautioned against a rush to judgment about the mayor before more information is known about the source of the recordings.

“My savior was put before a kangaroo court and he was found guilty,” said Pastor Mattie Epps, of the Doers of the Word Church on 12 Mile Road in Warren. “Anybody can say anything, but when you’re trying to take somebody out of office, you need proof, not allegations.”

While some in the crowd openly questioned the authenticity of the clips, others said they would be impossible to fabricate with available technology.

“You can take out ‘ums’ and ‘ahs,’ you can slow things down and you can speed things up, and you can move words around. But when you move words around, you sound like a Frankenstein, because people have a natural conversational tone,” said Jen McKernan, communications director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights.  “Steven Spielberg’s sound team doesn’t have access to software that invents words or allows you to move words around and make it sound conversational.”

Warren Planning Commission Chair Jocelyn Howard said she worked with the mayor to put together the Martin Luther King Jr. Day event that she said was “hijacked” by the release of the recordings.

“It was the result of someone being divisive,” Howard said. “It doesn’t matter what the mayor says or not. The issue is we have the city to protect and its citizens, and we shouldn’t allow any outside force who would not be bold enough to show its face to destroy our city.”

The mayor has not returned phone calls seeking comment about the recordings since their release on Jan. 16, but has instead used Facebook to reject their authenticity and describe the controversy swirling around him.

In the days immediately following the release of the latest clips, in which a voice that sounds like the mayor also refers to older women as “dried-up hag(s)” he wouldn’t want to date, a list of local officials openly called for his resignation.

The mayor also claimed that he has received “death threats” and said he has no intention of stepping down.

“Since December, my life has been a nightmare,” Fouts said in a Facebook post. “The media has been relentlessly pursuing me since then, shining bright TV lights on my home until late at night, knocking on my doors at all hours, including weekends, and incessantly phoning my home. The reporters are all hoping for an ‘exclusive interview.’”

Further down in his Facebook post dated Jan. 23, he continued by bashing the media.

“Their view of me is dark and no room for the good I’ve done, nor any room for the real culprit or my right to privacy, my right to confront my accuser or my presumed innocence,” Fouts wrote. “The media in effect has become an electronic lynch mob and not expected to change their minds. It’s a sensational story, so why stop the drumbeat?”

Warren resident Chris Pasternack told the crowd at the meeting that Fouts retaliated against him after he brought to light a discrepancy about the mayor’s age in 2011. The flap eventually involved a lawsuit centered on the mayor’s statement on a candidate affidavit, and an “embarrassed” Fouts ultimately corrected a long-standing error that had made him two years younger on his state-issued driver’s license.

Pasternack refuted those who claimed that the statements on the audio recordings were likely fabricated because they were out of character for Fouts, who has appointed minorities to key positions and hosted events promoting diversity and civil rights.

“The only reason he runs all these things he does is to get himself re-elected, time after time,” Pasternack said. “He doesn’t care about the citizens. He cares about himself, in my opinion. He spends all our city dollars to run all these pomp and circumstance things at City Hall at the taxpayers’ dime to spread his name. It’s a shame.”

Follow this continually developing story online at candgnews.com or on Facebook at facebook.com/warrenweekly.

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