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Fouts-Hackel dispute escalates with recording release

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Warren — One day after Warren Mayor Jim Fouts sought a state investigation into dumping at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre in Sterling Heights, he and the Macomb County executive squared off in separate interviews Thursday outside a Mound Road improvement meeting.

“I guess (this is how) stalkers are. He won’t let go,” Hackel said Thursday at the Gazebo Banquet Center, as nearly 70 local business owners and community leaders gathered in a nearby ballroom to discuss a proposed “Innovate Mound” project. “This is a very bizarre way to get my attention.”

Around the corner, Fouts paused briefly when asked about Hackel’s comment.

“That’s typical Mark Hackel,” the mayor said. “When he doesn’t have the facts, he attacks. That’s my response to that.”

The two officials are embroiled in an ongoing dispute over the dumping of excavated dirt at the outdoor music venue, a former landfill. Fouts has warned the dumping destroyed 44 methane gas wells, uprooted trees and caused leachate to leak.

Their early Thursday sparring at the meeting continued later in the day when Hackel released a tape recording to the media, allegedly capturing comments the mayor made disparaging those with special needs. Fouts took to Facebook to respond, saying he questions the validity of the tape

During the Mound Road improvement meeting, Fouts further alleged the dumping was illegal and dangerous, done as a “favor” to Dan’s Excavating.

“It raises a lot of questions about a cozy relationship,” he said.

Hackel on Thursday signaled that Dan’s Excavating is readying a possible lawsuit against Fouts.

“It’s a pretty litigious statement and one I think he will regret because I understand the contractor is not happy,” Hackel said, declining to name the business.

Hackel claimed Fouts’ allegations are factually unsubstantiated.

“He was wrong and he incited people,” Hackel said. “Not only is he damaging the relationship (between mayor and executive), but he’s damaging the image of the county.

“It’s so childish. I feel like I’m in school again, just trying to avoid the conversation.”

As the two officials sparred in the hallway, a nearby ballroom hosted a discussion about a proposed two-year, $150 million project to rebuild a nine-mile stretch of Mound in Warren and Sterling Heights. Around 70 business owners, politicians and community leaders attended.

The “Innovate Mound” project is aimed at improving mobility and technology along the stretch of Mound from 11 Mile at Interstate 696 to Hall Road, officials said during the presentation. A proposed timeline included two years of securing federal grants, followed by bids on the project in 2019, with construction slated to last from 2020 to 2022.

Anticipated improvements include complete roadway surface reconstruction, widening north of 17 Mile, as well as landscaping, lighting and new signs. Officials also want to equip the stretch with “smart street technology,” including computerized traffic signal systems, real-time speed monitoring and cameras.

The average life expectancy of a roadway is 25 years, county officials said. Mound Road is considered to be in “poor condition” at 30 years old and is subject to $3 million to $4 million in maintenance each year.

Thursday's meeting was designed to get "stakeholders" on board with the project. Local interest will help secure the federal funds needed to move forward with construction, officials said.

"These are the movers and shakers," Hackel said of the event's attendees. "I think everybody's on board with the plan."

Using a real-time, online voting program, a vast majority of those in the room indicated they were interested in widening the roadway, improving traffic signal timing and upgrading walkways and bike paths. They were less interested in plans for more signage and landscaping.

Fouts repeatedly expressed his desire to have the project expanded south to Eight Mile.

“I want the entire city to get help and that’s what I’m pleading for,” he said.

After the meeting, Hackel said the project might eventually be expanded but he maintained it is not an option for the current development plan.

“That pricetag, it’s almost a nonstarter,” he said.

The room came to a consensus when asked to use the online voting system to type one word to describe Mound in its current condition. Within seconds, a collage of disparaging words popped up on a screen projected onto the wall.

“Embarrassing. Traffic. Decrepit.”

Later Thursday, Fouts took to Facebook to respond to a tape recording Hackel released to the media, allegedly capturing comments the mayor made disparaging those with special needs.

“It’s clear this an attempt to silence me and intimidate me. I question the validity of this AWFUL tape, the context of the tape, and who was also speaking and where this speech was recorded,” Fouts wrote in his post. “The contents of this tape DO NOT reflect my attitude towards the mentally challenged. Mark Hackel will do anything and everything to disparage me. This recording was not me!”

Hackel on Friday confirmed he sent a tape to local media on Thursday. He added that he recognized Fouts' voice and was disturbed by the tape's contents, but did not have answers to where and when the tape was recorded.

"It sure sounds like him to me and it's extremely troubling," Hackel said. "I have to believe that the mayor would say 'That wasn't me.' What else can he say?"

Hackel said he does not know the origin of the recording, because it was sent to him around 3 a.m. Thursday from the friend of the Warren city employee who recorded the conversation. He added that he does not know the identity of the employee.

"They asked me to pass it along to a news reporter," Hackel said. "After I listened to it, I couldn't believe (what I heard) so I passed it along."

Hackel said he felt he had little choice.

"If I don't (pass it on), there would be questions of why I was sitting on it," he said. "I thought if I didn't do it, what if I was being tested here."

The recording was edited to remove the employee's voice prior to Hackel receiving it, he said. The county executive indicated he assumes the employee edited himself out to protect his identity.

"All I did was receive it and send it along," Hackel said. "And now we are speaking to our legal counsel to make a determination of whether this is something that I'm required to pass on to some other (civil rights) organization because of the hatred in there."

In response to Fouts' questions on the tape's validity, Hackel said the mayor should look to the unnamed employee.

"He's going to have to challenge the source of the information, and that's the employee who was in the room with him," Hackel said.

hfournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

Twitter: @HollyPFournier