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Warren voters set to consider term limits again

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published July 27, 2016

WARREN — Should Warren mayors be able to serve five four-year terms instead of three? That’s one of the questions set to go before Warren voters on Aug. 2.

If approved, Mayor Jim Fouts would instantly become eligible for re-election two more times, beginning in 2019 when his third term expires.

“Obviously, I support that. I love my job,” Fouts said earlier this month. “I love helping people with various neighborhood problems and other things. There’s more to do. I would like to continue our progress when it comes to downtown development. I want to continue our strong fund balance. I want to continue taking care of the citizens. We’re out there on the weekends taking care of people’s problems.”

Fouts went on to call term limits “an abysmal failure” at the state level and said that while he “reluctantly” voted for a July 1998 Warren City Council measure that put term limits for city offices on the ballot that November, he argued against what he now labels a “campaign gimmick” hatched by his former peers on the council.

The measure was originally put forward by Richard Sulaka, a former Warren City Council member, city clerk and mayoral candidate who died last November.

Meeting minutes from 1998 indicate that Fouts favored campaign spending limits instead of term limits, which he then claimed “wrongly says experience does not count and is fundamentally and philosophically undemocratic.”

“It throws the baby out with the bathwater,” Fouts said this month. “It punishes everybody equally.”

In 1998, Fouts also urged Sulaka to instead put a limit of eight years in place —  as is the case for many federal- and state-level offices — instead of 12, even though Fouts said he was “reluctant” to support any term limits.

According to the council minutes, Sulaka said at the time that he was “more assured than ever that this is the proper time for proposed term limits,” and that he believed that “the public would like term limits.”

The proposal to limit the terms of Warren’s mayor, clerk, treasurer and City Council members to three four-year terms, or a total of 12 years, passed by a landslide in 1998 with the support of 78 percent of Warren’s voters.

While the question was thought to have been settled by voter approval of the charter amendment back then, a renewed effort to do away with term limits has been brewing for some time.

It was a legal opinion of former City Attorney David Griem that effectively changed the interpretation of term limits for members of the Warren City Council two years ago. In response to a request for clarity from a citizen in 2014, Griem ruled that the 2010 Warren charter amendment that cut the size of the council from nine to seven members and established seats representing individual districts and the city at large created a “bicameral legislature.” He further opined that voters had approved “separate and distinct legislative groups,” which he said were subject to separate limits of three four-year terms.

Attempts to challenge Griem’s controversial opinion in court were unsuccessful before the city elections last year and, as a result, two members of the council — Council President Cecil St. Pierre and Councilman Keith Sadowski — were permitted to seek re-election to another term in their respective districts, despite having been term-limited under the previous interpretation of the voter-approved charter provision.

Both handily won re-election in November 2015.

Four months later, on March 1, 2016, City Council members gathered for a hastily called special meeting in a conference room at the Warren Community Center, where an incomplete group voted 4-1 to approve a resolution to put the mayoral term limits question on the ballot. 

City Councilman Robert Boccomino later said he called the meeting to discuss the proposal, but that he was stuck in weather-related traffic and was unable to attend. Councilwoman Kelly Colegio said she left the special meeting early due to a family medical emergency.

Boccomino, who later made the motion to approve a resolution putting the term limits question for the office of mayor only before Warren voters this year,  said he simply wanted to let voters consider the issue now that term limits have been in place for a while. The proposal eventually passed by a 6-1 margin.

Fouts later said the proposal originated with Boccomino  — and not from anyone in the administration, including himself — but that he wasn’t opposed to the idea.

Councilman Scott Stevens, who cast the lone vote against placing the proposal on the ballot, said residents should have a choice but that the matter should have been placed on the ballot in November, when voter turnout is expected to be much higher during the U.S. presidential election.

Warren resident Paul Kardasz, who organized a protest outside of the auditorium where the City Council met and approved putting the mayoral term limits question on the ballot in April, questioned the process that began with Griem’s opinion.

“The term limits for the City Council have never been amended by the legislative body of the city of Warren. Voting to extend the term of office of the mayor is only going to create more confusion down the line,” Kardasz said.

He added that more attempts to challenge term limits at the council level were in the works, despite the court’s prior decision that effectively punted the issue back to council itself.

Kardasz also questioned why term limits for Warren’s elected clerk and treasurer weren’t part of the ballot proposal set to go before the voters on Aug. 2.