Fouts on November ballot term limit proposal: ‘It’s about me’

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

 Warren Mayor Jim Fouts takes questions from reporters following a Warren Police Department press conference in September.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts takes questions from reporters following a Warren Police Department press conference in September.

Photo by Brian Louwers

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WARREN — It’s official. Warren voters will get to choose on Nov. 3 whether they want the city’s mayors to serve up to five four-year terms or just three, like all other city elected officials.

But Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said the ballot question, put there by an “out-of-control council controlled by outsiders,” isn’t about any future mayors.  

“It’s about me. It’s about the fact that they want to eliminate competition,” Fouts said on Sept. 8, a few days after the Michigan Supreme Court declined to weigh in on a state appellate court ruling that ordered Warren City Clerk Sonja Buffa to certify the ballot language in time for it to be placed on this year’s November ballot.

Buffa, through her attorney, had argued that notice of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approval of the language was required by election law and not received by a required deadline. A Macomb County Circuit Court judge agreed. However, the City Council, through its own special legal counsel, took the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and a panel of three judges unanimously overturned the opinion of Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Edward Servitto.

On Sept. 4, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Buffa’s legal counsel.

“As City Clerk, I take election deadlines seriously,” Buffa said afterward in a statement. “I appreciate the Macomb County Circuit Court recognizing the importance of following the certification deadlines. In my more than 20 years’ experience in the Warren City Clerk’s Office, I cannot recall a single instance when we overlooked a late filing of the Governor’s approval of ballot proposals. It is believed the Court of Appeals has set a new course for local clerks.”

Fouts went even further. He accused the City Council, which voted 5-2 on June 23 to place the proposal on the ballot, of “waiting until the last minute to do this.”

“All seven of the council members ran on various issues. Not one time did they mention term limits or specifically my term limits,” Fouts said. “That was never an issue.”

Fouts added that the council, after the election in November 2019, decided to “create issues that are not relevant to the public.”

“I don’t think anybody cares, one way or another, about term limits,” Fouts said.

Warren voters overwhelmingly voted to set limits for all city elected officials at three four-year terms or 12 years in 1998.

The water was muddied somewhat after former City Attorney David Griem issued an opinion in 2014 about a voter-approved change to the city charter four years earlier that cut the size of the City Council from nine to seven members serving in a combination of five districts and two at-large seats. Griem opined that the seats were separate and distinct offices and, thus, open to separate limits of three four-year terms or 12 years each.

A lawsuit unsuccessfully challenged Griem’s interpretation in 2015, but his opinion was eventually cast aside after another lawsuit filed by a City Council candidate in 2019, when a Macomb County Circuit Court judge threw three city incumbent councilmen off the ballot.  

But that wasn’t until after a strange effort emerged in 2016 to extend the term limits for Warren mayors only from three to five four-year terms. The proposal made it on the ballot and narrowly passed during a sleepy off-year primary election that August.  

Voter turnout this November, with the U.S. presidential election and a variety of other county, state and national offices on the ballot, is expected to be historically high.

“It’s time to put an end to the term-limit games, and it’s up to the voters,” Warren City Council Secretary Mindy Moore said on Sept. 17. “Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously that voter-approved term limits were being violated by allowing council members six terms or 24 years in office. This illegal loophole was caused by the prior council to justify extending the mayor’s office to five terms or 20 years.

“We are giving the voters the option to clean up the mess and once again provide equal term limits for all city offices. We chose the November 2020 election because of the high voter turnout that is expected,” Moore said. “The term limits extension in 2016 was put on a very low turnout August primary ballot, which was part of the strategy to get around the majority of voters.”

Fouts argued just the opposite. He said putting a “city issue” on a crowded presidential election year ballot was inappropriate.

The mayor is currently in the second year of his fourth four-year term.

“They can run against me for mayor in 2023, and if I’m not doing a good job, then one of them can be mayor,” Fouts said. “Instead, they chose to do a TKO against me. They chose to disregard the will of the public, and they chose to eliminate their main competition so they will be able to get elected without working hard.”

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