Warren city attorney files discrimination complaint against City Council

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Warren — Ethan Vinson, Warren's city attorney, has filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the Warren City Council, alleging attempts to declare his position vacant are motivated by race.

Vinson, who was appointed in April 2017 by Mayor Jim Fouts, writes in the four-page complaint, filed on April 22, that the previous day, a City Council action declared the position vacant. He writes that things turned for him when the current membership of the council took office in November.

Read:Ethan Vinson's EEOC complaint

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to its website, enforces the federal laws that make discrimination illegal for employees or job seekers. Race is the very first category mentioned.

Fouts, in an April 21 letter to the council, said the body "does not have authority to declare the office of a confirmed city attorney vacant nor appoint a new city attorney. ...You simply do not have authority to remove the city attorney or declare this duly appointed and confirmed position vacant. That authority is vested only in my office."

Fouts vetoed the City Council effort, but the council overrode it the next week.

Even so, "I believe I am still the city attorney," Vinson said. "Mayor Fouts says I am the city attorney." 

Fouts agreed Friday, and said Vinson was "the best city attorney I've had" since taking office in 2007. 

Fouts sees the City Council's actions as an attempt to grab power that belongs to the executive.

"I appoint, they approve," Fouts said. "City Council does not have to re-approve. They don't have the right to unappoint him, because they're not the executive branch."

Mindy Moore of the Warren City Council learned of the complaint from a reporter on Friday. She denied that racial animus, or any personal issues with Vinson, led to the breakdown in the relationship.

"There was absolutely no racial motivation," Moore said.

"I don't know what's in their minds, so I can't say," Fouts said, when asked about the allegation race has played a role in the matter. "They've treated him very disrespectfully, and quite shoddy. I wouldn't like to be treated the way he has been treated"

After the council declared the city attorney position vacant in a 6-1 vote at the April 21 meeting, Fouts vetoed the decision. The City Council overrode the veto on April 28.

The April 21 meeting was considered a "special' meeting, Fouts said, which means only 18 hours notice was necessary. The April 28 meeting was regularly scheduled.

As far as Moore is concerned, Warren does not have a city attorney. Vinson is still being paid and still has his office at city hall.

Moore said the council's concerns are procedural, not personal, and that council members have the right to approve a city attorney. Fouts argues that because Vinson had previously been confirmed, he did not need to be reconfirmed.

"This is a new term of council and the mayor," Moore said of the group whose work started in November. "Those appointments from prior terms don't carry over on the offices that the city council confirms. They have asserted the power of two branches."

Moore said that when she served on City Council from 2000 to 2007, "in our very first meeting the prior mayor, Mayor (Mark) Steenbergh, put up his nominees for city attorney and city assessor at the very first meeting, and council confirms. That's the way it's been done historically, but Mayor Fouts refused to do that."

Moore, a court reporter, and Vinson, an attorney, had met previously, but their working relationship in their Warren-related professional roles got off to a frosty start.

At a November 2019 council meeting, Vinson was seated near the elected body. Moore asked him in what capacity he was there.

"City attorney," Vinson said.

"There is no city attorney," Moore said. 

Both had similar recollections of that interaction, which Vinson mentions in his EEOC complaint.

Vinson wrote in his EEOC complaint that he believes the removal action was taken "because of my race (African-American)."

"I didn't want to think that," Vinson said Friday. "But the way it was targeted at me, it can't be anything else. No one has said anything to me, or called me any racially derogatory names, but all the efforts seem to be targeted at me."

The City Council, Vinson says, "came in declaring war" against Mayor Fouts.

"I guess I'm the sacrificial lamb," Vinson said.

Moore took a different view of the EEOC complaint, blaming Fouts for stoking tensions.

"The mayor has provoked this," Moore said. "He is on social media encouraging this."

In light of audio recordings in recent years that have purported to reveal Fouts making racist remarks — accusations Fouts has denied from the beginning — Moore questioned whether Fouts' position is an attempt to "cover up" those alleged words.

"I don't know if he is encouraging this reaction by Mr. Vinson to cover up for his past disparagement of black people or not," Moore said. "I really don't know what someone's motivation is. I can tell you my motivation in everything we have done concerning the city attorney position is about the position and not about the individual."

In an April 21 post on his public Facebook page, Fouts spoke out against the City Council's first vote to declare Vinson's position vacant.

"Mr. Vinson was treated with disregard, disrespect, and disdain. This transfers to a hostile work environment," Fouts wrote.

"It's very disappointing for the CEO of the city to encourage someone to sue the city," Moore said.

"The next step, frankly, will probably be, 'we'll see you in court,'" Vinson said.

The State Bar of Michigan admitted Vinson in November 1976. Records from the State of Michigan's Attorney Grievance Board show he was suspended for 75 days in February 1990, and for 18 months in October 1991. By that point he was still on the 1990 suspension for practicing law while suspended, failure to pay assessed costs, failure to file an affidavit of compliance and failing to respond to two requests for information. 

"The respondent failed to answer the formal complaints but appeared at the hearing held in Detroit on August 16, 1989" in a child custody case, the 1990 suspension order read. "Respondent's defaults were entered and the hearing panel determined that the defaults established the allegations of the formal complaints."

He was ordered to pay the client $300, plus interest, and the attorney discipline board $211.

In September 1991, the board revoked his license. In the end, that was reduced to an 18-month suspension.


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