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Appeals court puts Warren term limit proposal on ballot

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Warren residents will get to decide whether to shorten the limit on how many terms the city's mayor can serve.

The Michigan Courts of Appeals ordered Thursday that a ballot proposal to reduce the limit from five four-year terms to three be placed on the Nov. 3 ballot, reversing a ruling by the Macomb County Circuit Court.

The ballot proposal would amend the Warren City Charter, potentially denying Mayor James Fouts a fifth term.

Jim Fouts

Warren City Council members approved a resolution for the proposal June 30. Fouts vetoed the resolution, but council members subsequently overrode the mayor's veto.

Warren city clerk Sonja Buffa refused to certify the ballot proposal, saying the needed approval from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not reach her in time to meet a state-mandated deadline of 4 p.m. Aug. 11. 

Council members argued that Whitmer had until Aug. 13, the deadline for the proposal to be certified by Macomb County Clerk Fred Miller, a deadline the governor met. The suit names him and Buffa as defendants.

In its ruling, the appeals court said: "... our opinion today decides that the Governor’s approval was not required for 'the ballot wording of the ballot question' to be certified to the proper local or county clerk not later than 4 p.m. on the twelfth Tuesday before the election as required (by Michigan law)" — which was Aug. 13.

The court concluded: "Buffa had a clear legal duty to certify the ballot language to the Macomb County Clerk by August 13, 2020."

Fouts who was elected to a fourth term last year, blasted the council's actions and the court's ruling. He said the council should not be suing over the issue and should be focused on helping him deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

"They've had three chances to get Jim Fouts out of office and they couldn't do it," he said. "This is totally unjustifiable, a desperate attempt to justify a TKO against me. That's fundamentally undemocratic."

Warren city council member Pat Green said there is "nothing diabolical" about the ballot proposal, saying the aim is to make the term limits the same for all city offices.

"We're not talking about the mayor. We're talking about the term limits being 12 years for every office," Green said. "We're asking voters to take it back to what it was originally."

Fouts said the city's clerk would appeal the ruling, saying the court "disregarded home rule." The mayor said most cities in Metro Detroit don't have term limits.

"When I go out, people tell me, 'we want you to be mayor. Mr. Mayor, if you run again we like what you've done.'"

In August 2016, voters approved a ballot measure to extend the mayoral term limit from three to five. Last November, Fouts won re-election with 57.5% of the vote over Councilwoman Kelly Colegio.