Court rules in Warren City Council’s favor in budget dispute

Administration wins legal dispute over city attorney

By: Gena Johnson | Warren Weekly | Published January 6, 2023


WARREN — The legal wrangling between Warren City Council and Warren Mayor James Fouts to determine who has control of the city’s budget has gone on for years. In a recent Michigan Court of Appeals ruling, it was determined the Warren City Council has the authority to create, amend and change the budget, while the mayor is to adhere to this budget.

“Council is very pleased with the decision by the Court of Appeals, to uphold the lower court’s ruling,” said City Council President Patrick Green.  “It affirmed that council was correct, and the council determines the budget, no one else.  The mayor must follow the budget established by council and doing anything else would be a violation of the budget act.”

In the court’s written opinion, their decision was based on the Zelenko v. Burton City Council case, the intent of the language and the difference between the words “a” and “the.” The words “a budget” gave the council the authority to create, change and amend the city’s budget.  The words “the budget” would limit council’s authority, making it so council could only approve or deny the mayor’s budget.

“The budget” is the interpretation the mayor has been using.

Fouts questioned the Court of Appeals’ understanding of Warren’s own city charter.

“I don’t think the Court of Appeals understood the way the charter has been used for the past 50 years,” Fouts said.  “The charter does reference the fact that it is the mayor’s budget, not the council’s budget.”

The mayor explained further.

“I present a budget and council can approve or deny it.  If there is an impasse and neither side can come to an agreement, it remains the mayor’s budget until both sides come to an agreement,” said Fouts.

Fouts responded to the Court of Appeals’ decision and what it would mean for municipal government.

“I am disappointed in that. This is a monumental decision that basically has strong repercussions for all strong-mayor cities. If you have a city manager city, I guess it doesn’t matter if the council has total control.  But in Warren we have checks and balances, and no one branch of government is too powerful.  Under this ruling, it would give the City Council unilateral power and they could do whatever they wanted with the budget.

“The council would now be able to strike items based on arbitrary and capricious reasons,” Fouts added. “That could seriously limit the ability of any mayor, whether it is Mayor Fouts or a future mayor, to conduct the duties of his office.”

Some contend the mayor has wielded too much power for far too long, and this is an attempt to control that.

“They (the mayor and his team) have just been spending money however they wanted without any council oversight whatsoever for at least the entire time this council has been in office,” said Warren City Council Secretary Mindy Moore.

The current Warren City Council has been in office since November 2019.

Although it may be difficult, Fouts said the administration may appeal the court’s decision.

“We are seriously considering appealing to the state Supreme Court,” Fouts said.  “Although it is difficult.  The courts tend to not want to hear a case.  It is somewhat of a hurdle to try to do so.”


Mayor wins legal dispute over city attorney
Although the City Council prevailed with the Court of Appeals decision regarding the budget, the mayor counts many of the rulings by Judge Michael Servitto in Macomb County Circuit Court as a win in his administration’s list of legal battles with the council.  This includes a recent ruling about City Attorney Ethan Vinson’s status, as appointed by the mayor and serving at the mayor’s pleasure.   

According to the court, the charter is clear in its language that this position does not have to be reappointed when a new council is elected.

The council cannot remove the city attorney from office or determine the position vacant.

“Ethan Vinson was deemed as being the city attorney and I don’t have to ask them to approve his re-appointment,” Fouts said.

The judge ruled both the mayor and City Council can hire outside legal services if it pertains to the affairs of the city and if necessary to carry out the responsibilities of their office.  Proper invoices must also be submitted.