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Removing names from ballot goes to court

By: Alex Szwarc | Warren Weekly | Published June 10, 2019


WARREN — Candidate names were on the ballot, off for a few days, and now back on.

As the Warren Weekly went to press on June 6, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to reverse a decision that the names of four candidates for the Warren City Council will appear on the August ballot.

At-large City Council candidate Connor Berdy said on June 7 that he will file an immediate motion with the Michigan Supreme Court.

For the latest coverage, check and upcoming editions of the Warren Weekly.

The following was reported before the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling:

On May 31, Macomb County Circuit Court Judge James Maceroni filed an opinion and order that four Warren City Council members — Cecil St. Pierre, Steven Warner, Robert Boccomino and Scott Stevens — were ineligible to be candidates for the Warren City Council.

The ruling came 11 days after a lawsuit was filed by Berdy. The lawsuit is similar to one filed four years ago by former council candidate Lanette Olejniczak.

At issue is a legal opinion by former City Attorney David Griem from December 2014. He concluded that council members retain eligibility to run for office for an additional three terms, or 12 years, in a district after they are effectively term limited from at-large seats, and vice versa.

The deadline to print ballots for the Aug. 6 primary election was June 8, after the Warren Weekly went to press.

Berdy’s lawsuit was seeking a court order directing Warren City Clerk Sonja Buffa to remove the four council members.

“The Clerk’s Office did not perform their duty to remove these four candidates from the ballot who are past their 12 years,” Berdy said. “The judge said our case has merit and the City Council does not operate as a bicameral legislature. It’s one unit, so you get 12 years, no matter what seat you’re in.”

Attorney Robert Huth was hired as outside counsel to represent the city in the Olejniczak case, and again represented Buffa and the Warren Election Commission in the matter filed by Berdy.

“The lawsuit is whether or not language of term limits would prevent four councilmen from remaining on the ballot in August and November,” he said.

Huth said an appeal was worked on over the weekend after the court’s ruling. He said most of the paperwork was filed by the end of the day June 3 with the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Huth thinks it’s the same facts, same charter provision and same issues from 2015, when the Michigan Court of Appeals and the circuit court ruled that the candidates should be on the ballot.

“The judge made a ruling, and regardless of what it was going to be, there was going to be an appeal, either by the city or the suing party,” Boccomino said.

He cited the ruling from four years ago in Warren’s favor as a reason he was surprised with the recent decision.

Berdy was familiar with the prior lawsuit, which he said included procedural errors.

“I thought it could be done better this time,” Berdy said. “My campaign is all about transparency and accountability in government, so I would be doing a disservice to my constituents if I jumped in and started playing the same game of musical chairs as they were.”

Boccomino was elected to serve at large between 2007 and 2011, and in District 5 twice from 2011 to 2019. He filed to run in District 5 again this year.

“We had the same kind of case against two council members, and the judge ruled they had a right to be on a ballot,” Boccomino said. “We wouldn’t have put our names on the ballot if we didn’t have a previous judge rule it was allowed.”

His belief is that Maceroni made an error in the ruling.

“This judge overruled the judge from four years ago,” he said. “You have a controversial opinion. That’s why there’s an appeal court.”

What concerns Boccomino with the ruling is its timing.

“A lot of citizens are upset that a judge is taking their right to vote people in or out,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of confused voters. They feel it’s not a democracy (if judges) start taking people off the ballot.”

He added that voters are upset because he feels the May 10 lawsuit was timed after the filing deadline for candidates, April 24.

“The door closed and a couple weeks later, the lawsuit was filed,” Boccomino said. “Now it’s ruled negatively; people might have run for office had they known that incumbents weren’t in the race. Why did you wait so long so that no one else can run?”

Berdy’s response to that notion was that he couldn’t have filed the lawsuit until after he saw that the Clerk’s Office hadn’t performed its duty.

“There’s more people running in a Warren city election across every seat than there’s been in the past 20 years, I believe,” he said.

Stevens, who was elected to three at-large terms between 2007 and 2019, described the case as “typical Warren politics.”

“This is the second time this lawsuit has been filed,” he said. “Since then, they’ve gotten smart by not including council members in the lawsuit. They sued the city clerk, the Elections Commission and county clerk.”

Stevens is running in District 3 and said he feels his rights are being violated. His hope is that the four council members’ names would have been joined to the lawsuit.

“We are the subject of the lawsuit, but not part of the lawsuit,” he said.

In regard to Maceroni’s ruling, Stevens thought that since a similar lawsuit already was upheld in circuit court and the Court of Appeals, Berdy’s lawsuit would be denied.

Berdy said the court of public opinion has been behind him during this case and that he is prepared to face the appeal.

St. Pierre did not respond to a request for comment for this story prior to press time.