Warren election: Is city moving forward or at ‘moral crossroads’?
Warren — Kelly Colegio, a member of Warren City Council, tells voters Mayor Jim Fouts has been around too long, has not solved problems in the state's third-largest city and has a reputation that's a barrier to progress.
Fouts tells them he is dedicated to his job, is making progress on worthwhile initiatives, and that Colegio’s criticisms of him mask her lack of preparation and specific plans for moving Warren forward.
Colegio, 51, the wife of a former city police officer, portrays the choice voters face Nov. 5, in part, as a question of ethics.
“I feel that our city is at a moral crossroads,” she said.
“We’re at a state right now where we can either choose to stay on the same path with the same politics that we’ve seen going on for the past several years, or we can turn and move the city forward and have economic growth and more neighborhood safety and try to entice families to move back into the city of Warren, instead of the exit that we’re now experiencing.”
According to U.S. census data, Warren's population edged up 0.4% from 2010 to 2018, going from 134,056 to 134,587.
Seeking a fourth term, Fouts, 77, said being mayor is about more than saying no to his proposals about downtown development, sewage and public safety.
“I should be mayor because I have some very important projects I’m working on that I think will help the city move forward,” he said.
“My job is my life and my wife. I like what I do. And people sometimes criticize me and say, don’t you want to take a break, or something. And, no, I like what I do.”
But, Fouts’ tenure has grown stormy.
Secretly recorded conversations appeared to depict him insulting women, the mentally disabled and African Americans, and using a gay slur.
Fouts asserts the recordings, which began surfacing nearly three years ago, are the phony product of political opponents. During a deposition last year in federal court, he declined to answer questions about the tapes.
Colegio called him “a buffoon” and said his reputation makes it difficult to conduct business and run the municipal government.
“The mayor had a chance to clean his name in open court, when he was asked if that was him, his voice on those tapes, and he chose not to do so,” she said.
“I personally believe he has an obligation: He needs to still apologize to certain groups in our city.
“It’s ostracized the city. A lot of businesses kind of shy away from coming here. We don’t have a working relationship at the county level, at the state level, as we should as the third-largest city.”
Asked if he thinks he has besmirched the reputation of the city, Fouts was having none of it.
“No, I do not,” he said. “I have worked 24/7. I don’t know any other mayor who has done more work than I have.”
Asked again, if amid his years of service, his behavior has in any way harmed the city, Fouts again dismissed the notion and said he's better suited to lead than Colegio.
“No, as a matter of fact, I question her qualifications,” he said, asserting that Colegio’s lack of a college degree and executive experience are poor preparation for Warren's highest office.
Warren residents cite crime, blight and road conditions as key concerns ahead of next month's election.
Sue Lewandowski said she believes Fouts has shown he can tackle those issues. "He has paid attention to crime, and work at cleaning up and improving the south end along Van Dyke seems to be coming along," she said. "I like my city and the direction it is going.”
Ada Bowie, who has lived in Warren for six years, said Fouts and his administration were responsive when she called about excessive dog barking and neighbors blocking her driveway to play basketball.
"I'm pretty happy with the mayor. I know he's had some issues, but so have we all," she said. "As far as city problems that need to be addressed, I wish they would take care of some of the potholes on the side streets."
Bill Clift has a different view, saying he has been frustrated trying to get the city to respond to his complaints about drug trafficking and run-down homes.
“I tried to get involved with the crime commission and reported things I saw going on in my neighborhood,” said Clift, a 16-year resident who ran for City Council in District 1 in the August primary. “I stuck my neck out, but nothing was done. I would always get some roadblock, some excuse … after a while, you give up."
He said he supports Colegio for mayor: "I think she has residents’ backs,” he said.
Colegio argues there has been a lack of advancement on a string of issues, including flooding, and it was one reason she chose to leave Fouts’ office several years ago.
“I’ve been telling Warren residents that for four years I actually managed the mayor’s office and did community outreach, and eight years as their elected city councilwoman, mayor pro-tem,” she said.
“We’ve had zero growth in downtown development the last 12 years in front of our city hall. We see all of our neighboring cities have economic growth in their downtown areas. They have cultural type centers coming in. They have arts, entertainment, upscale restaurants, that type of growth.”
Fouts said he has programs up and running.
A new catch basin in the sewage system will help alleviate flooding some residents have experienced in the homes for more than a generation, he said.
He said his plan for downtown, near City Hall, across Van Dyke from the GM Tech Center, is advancing and includes a pedestrian bridge from the automotive campus to a new civic center, complete with residences, shopping and restaurants.
“It’s going to be a model where, not just citizens from the city of Warren, but all over the Metro area, will want to go," Fouts said, adding the development will include "upscale lofts" and a hotel.
Colegio said surveys of residents conducted as part of the development process reveal Fouts is out of touch with what residents want in their downtown.
Few favor the residential development, she said.
The walkway from the Tech Center is a frivolous expenditure, she said, especially at a time when GM is coping with a strike by the United Auto Workers.
As for the sewers and storm drains, Colegio said it is not clear Fouts’ plan solves the problem, especially in the long term, and she said the mayor and his administration haven't given other city officials and residents enough information about the program.
“In reality, they have not told the residents the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is requiring us to do something to stop the long, ongoing practice of putting partially treated sewage into a drain during large rain events,” she said.
Fouts said the information is freely available, the subject of various public meetings and the storm drain proposed will solve the problem.
“We’re the only city in the Metro area that’s trying to solve the problem of flooding,” he said. “So, we’re building 21-, 22-million-gallon detention basin. We may even make that bigger.
“It’s in the process of being reviewed, and it’s going to take several years."
Fouts said crime is down, but Colegio said that clearly is not true, in some areas of the city and for some crimes.
According to FBI crime statistics, the reality is not so clear-cut. Warren's violent crime rate is down since 2015, according to the agency's 2018 Uniform Crime Report released last month, but up 1.3% from 2013.
“I am the wife of a retired Warren police lieutenant,” she said. “I have a real clear working knowledge of the inner workings of the Warren police department and a clear understanding of what’s needed to truly keep the neighborhoods safe.
“We have neighborhoods that are experiencing spikes in certain types of crimes, robberies, car thefts, that type of thing … and residents are concerned out there.
“We’re down 40 officers from where Warren was once staffed. We need to bring back a few more and make sure our neighborhood patrols are fully staffed.”
Fouts said the department is modern, aggressive and engaged in hiring programs to increase its diversity, as Warren, once a haven for white flight from Detroit, increasingly becomes a melting pot in Macomb County.
He touted a blight sweep organized by the city to address derelict properties and a $700,000 grant from DTE Energy for new, powerful street lights as contributing to public safety.
The police department also participated last month in raids on 10 drug houses in Detroit and Highland Park, which Fouts said had contributed to public safety problems in Warren.
“I’m very proud of our police, who are top-notch,” he said.
Mike Martindale contributed.