Do term limits matter?

Incumbents say voters are happy with services and progress, but challengers still calling foul

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published October 26, 2015

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WARREN — A controversial ruling late last year by a former city attorney unquestionably reshaped the election-year contests in two Warren City Council districts.

But the real question is, do the voters care?

We’ll know on Nov. 3, when electors in District 2 and District 3 will choose between a pair of challengers — including one who has already suspended his campaign — and incumbents who previously would have been precluded from seeking re-election after serving three four-year terms in office.

“I’m still very upset about the court’s ruling on that,” District 3 challenger Lanette Olejniczak said, referring to a lawsuit she filed earlier this year seeking to have former City Attorney David Griem’s ruling regarding term limits overturned. “Going door to door, people tell me that they know about it.”

In January, Griem opined that district and at-large seats on the Warren City Council, established by a charter amendment in 2010, created a bicameral legislature with “separate and distinct offices.” As a result, he said a limit of three four-year terms in office, approved by Warren voters in 1998, could be applied separately to those seeking office in a City Council district or at large.

Griem’s opinion paved the way for incumbent City Council President Cecil St. Pierre Jr. to run again in District 3. He previously served 16 years on the council, effectively at large, between 1987 and 2003. Eight of those years were subject to term limits after they were imposed in 1998. St. Pierre ran for what would have been his third and final four-year term in 2011 in District 3, but Griem’s interpretation made him eligible for one more four-year at-large term and two more four-year terms in the district.

Olejniczak, who said she attended Warren City Council meetings as a child with her father when he served as the city’s auditor, said she ran for office to represent the residents, and that term limits were designed to bring out new ideas from new candidates.

“I’ve lived in Warren my entire life. I’ve seen the changes in Warren, some of them good, some of them not so good,” Olejniczak said. “I know the ins and outs of the city. I believe I am a young, ambitious and knowledgeable person, and am knowledgeable about the history of Warren and Warren politics, and I would do a good job for the people of Warren.

“It’s not a monarchy. It’s a democracy. You can’t stay in office until you die. These people never leave. Nothing is going to change in Warren if you have the same people in charge,” Olejniczak said.

Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Diane Druzinski essentially said the term-limit question was a matter for the City Council to decide and declined to take action on behalf of the court. The Michigan Court of Appeals later declined to hear the case.

St. Pierre, who is also an attorney, said he believes it’s a dead issue.

“I’ve been going door to door. I haven’t heard a single comment about the issue of term limits,” St. Pierre said Oct. 22. “Personally, I don’t think it’s an issue legally, and I don’t think it’s an issue with the residents.”

What are issues, St. Pierre said, are progress and services. He said the city’s current crop of leaders are delivering both, and that that’s the real reason behind Warren’s sleepy 2015 election cycle.

The term limit ruling also enabled incumbent City Councilman Keith Sadowski to run for re-election in District 2.

He was elected in 2003 and served two terms, effectively at large, before the charter amendment put the combination of district and at-large seats in place in 2010. He’s now eligible to serve two more four-year terms in District 2 and one more four-year term at large, but he would have been term-limited out had Griem’s opinion been overturned in court.

“One or two people early on in the campaign said something about it, but you know, it really hasn’t been an issue,” Sadowski said. “The big issue that we’ve heard door to door is just roads, roads, roads.”

Sadowski said his campaign strategy has not changed. He said he’s been knocking on doors, that he sent a mailing to absentee voters and that he planned to send literature to poll voters in the days to come.

But his opponent, Richard Paul Sulaka II, an attorney who, in yet another wrinkle, actually represented Olejniczak in her lawsuit over term limits, recently penned a letter to residents announcing his decision to suspend his campaign.

Sulaka, who serves as Macomb County’s deputy public works commissioner, cited medical issues and a protracted healing process that left him “unable to execute the campaign plan that my supporters and I worked so hard to prepare” as the reason for his decision.

He said he turned away “dozens of potential campaign contributions,” and said he is “committed to restoring the amounts donated to me by the political action committees” now that the campaign is defunct. 

Sulaka also said he regretted not being able to do more about letting “the foxes run the henhouse” with respect to term limits.

“The real overreaching concept of the lawsuit was defending democracy,” Sulaka said. “That’s the thing I think is the most difficult part of having to suspend the campaign, is just feeling that there’s these people and, unfortunately, they’re getting away with what’s tantamount to stealing an election.”