Warren City Council scores another legal victory over Mayor Fouts on budget

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Warren — A visiting Macomb County judge has given the Warren City Council another legal victory over Mayor James Fouts by recognizing the council's power to amend the mayor's budget request.

In an order issued Thursday, Judge Denis Leduc ordered Fouts to comply with a City Council veto override and stop spending city money that the City Council didn't authorize when it amended the mayor's budget request before passing an appropriations resolution, according to Macomb County Circuit Court records.

Leduc said in his order that council "has authority to amend the mayor's budget prior to passing an appropriations resolution" and that Fouts "must take all actions necessary to cease further disbursement of unappropriated funds."

Warren Mayor Pro Tem and City Council President Patrick Green, left, and Council Secretary Mindy Moore address a speaker during the city council meeting, Tuesday, April. 12, 2022, in Warren, Mich.

Council members in the state's third largest city said Fouts intentionally and illegally spent $675,000 from the Downtown Development Authority that was not approved by the City Council for television ads and promotions. LeDuc issued a preliminary injunction three weeks ago against Fouts, who also serves as the DDA's chairman, writing that it's "in the public interest" to rule against the mayor.

"The lack of transparency by the mayor is stunning. He’s ordering department heads and finance staff not to provide critical financial information to the council,” said Patrick Green, the president of the City Council.

"The court has determined that the mayor’s diversion of city funds violates the law and council should expect the cooperation of all city employees to determine where tax dollars have been diverted. The council needs to know immediately how much money has been diverted from the budget so we can determine next steps including possible referrals for a criminal investigation."

Fouts expressed disappointment in a Thursday statement in which the 79-year-old mayor vowed to "protect our City Charter" while making a dig at the visiting judge by calling him "long retired." LeDuc retired at the end of 2020 from 42nd District Court in northern Macomb County.

"I believe he came to the wrong decision by leaving the case open. We requested a declaratory judgement last week so that we could move this process to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

MORE: Why Warren is in 'a state of war' between Mayor Fouts and City Council

"I believe the judge misread our City Charter, which demands cooperation between the mayor and council on development of the budget instead of the unilateral approach of the City Council. ... We hoped to appeal this decision to the Court of Appeals, and if necessary the Michigan Supreme Court, to make certain the Warren City Charter is properly enforced and our system of checks and balances is protected. No one branch of government can give a unilateral decision without a compromise between the two branches."

The feud between Fouts and the City Council has been building for years with members saying he has been illegally using city funds to promote himself while the mayor claims the City Council had not been following proper budget procedures. He has also filed a lawsuit in Macomb County Circuit Court.

The latest battles in court started in late February, when Fouts sued the council over what he argued was its misinterpretation of its powers under the city charter.

The mayor contended the council had violated the charter by directly attempting to "contact and command appointed administrative officers and department directors." He also challenged the council's "open-ended retention of the law firm Plunkett Cooney" as "an improper attempt to usurp the function of the City’s duly-appointed City Attorney, Ethan Vinson."

"No one branch" of city government "has unchecked power," Fouts said in a mid-March statement.

The council followed in early March by suing Fouts over the city budget approved in 2021 in which Fouts proposed spending $720,000 on the Downtown Development Authority for contractual services and community promotions. The council voted against funding those measures but did approve $70,000 for "Human Resources - Temporary Co-op" instead of the $40,000 requested by Fouts and added a salary increase for the deputy council secretary.

Fouts vetoed the council's budget resolution, and the council voted to override the mayor's veto. Despite this, Fouts this year has committed the city to spend more than $302,500 on the DDA's contractual services, $60,000 on community promotions while blocking the deputy council secretary's salary hike and spending the council-approved money for human resources, according to court records.