'No action to take' on Gabe Leland's vacant council seat, Detroit Election Commission says

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit Election Commission declined to step into a "legal question" surrounding the vacant seat formerly held by councilman Gabe Leland at its meeting Wednesday.

At issue is whether the Detroit City Council's May 25 decision that the winner of the District 7 election on Nov. 2 immediately begin serving the remaining weeks of Leland's term that expires Dec. 31 is in compliance with the city charter. 

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia called the matter a "legal question."

"The appropriate place for that to be settled is in a court of law, not by this body," Garcia told commissioners.

"The council has reached a decision on how to handle this partial term in the coming election," Garcia said. "Under our charter, council is in charge of filling vacancies on the council."

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said she agrees with the Detroit Election Commission's decision on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 to not contest the Detroit City Council's plan to fill former councilman Gabe Leland's seat.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, chair of the commission, agreed.

"This district will be represented," Winfrey said. "There is no action for this body to take."

On May 25, the City Council opted not to appoint a replacement and decided that whoever won the Nov. 2 election would immediately fill the remainder of Leland's term that ends Dec. 31.

The rest of the candidates elected in November will start their terms on Jan. 1, 2022.

More:Detroit council seat to remain vacant until November

"I was satisfied with that," said Fred Durhal III about the City Council decision that winner would take all.  

Durhal and Regina Ross will compete on Nov. 2 to fill the District 7 seat, which covers a portion of the city's west side. 

Attorney Drew Paterson sent a letter to Winfrey and Garcia on behalf of Detroit voter Linda Reed-Pratt, urging the commission to override the city council decision.

In the case of a Detroit City Council vacancy, the council can appoint a new member with a two-thirds vote, according to the city charter. The council opted not to do that in May.

The city charter requires an election to fill a city council vacancy "not sooner" than 180 days of the vacancy. Nov. 2 is 183 days after Leland's May 3 resignation, Paterson noted.

Former District 7 Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland. Leland resigned in May after pleading guilty to a misconduct in office charge.

But to violate the charter, the election would've had to be held prior to the 180 days.

"Therefore, the remaining portion of Leland's unexpired term, which would be approx 1 1/2 months, must be filled at the November 2, 2021 General Election in accordance with the Detroit City Charter," read Paterson's letter.

Paterson argues that because it's too late for candidates to certify for the November ballot, the remainder of Leland's term should be decided via write-in votes. 

"That's a catch-22," said Durhal, a former state representative, of the write-in idea. "I can understand wanting to have representation. But how many sessions will there be in those few weeks? And having a write-in on the ballot might confuse voters."

More:Durhal, Ross to battle in November to fill District 7 seat

Ross said the write-in idea "makes no sense."

"I agree with City Council," Ross said. "Why would we put a write-in candidate in office for a month, month-and-a-half?"

Paterson said prior to the meeting that if the write-in idea was not adopted by the commission, he would sue in Wayne Circuit Court for a writ that would compel the clerk's office to put Leland's seat up for write-in election on Nov. 2. 

Nicole Small, a member of the Detroit Charter Revision Committee, said the issue raised by the legal challenge is "probably a moot point."

Small criticized City Council for "giving away its power" by declining to make a temporary appointment.

"That was a cowardly way to get out of a decision," Small said. "People in that district are dealing with flooding, blight, dumping, crime. They need representation, and they deserve it."

In the more than two years Leland was under federal indictment, he was never censured or had his powers diminished by his colleagues. 

"No one wanted to touch the issue of Gabe Leland," Small said. "That is a huge part of the problem."

Leland was sentenced to two and a half years of probation in June after pleading guilty to a state misconduct in office charge.

The 38-year-old Democrat was accused of agreeing to accept $15,000 in cash and free car repairs from a Detroit businessman in exchange for his vote on a controversial land deal.

The allegations resulted in an indictment on federal bribery charges in addition to the state felony misconduct in office charge, but the federal charge was dismissed as part of the plea agreement with Monroe County prosecutors.