Judge sides with Hamtramck in fight over council seat

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Hamtramck office-seeker is considering his next step after a judge on Friday sided with the city in a legal feud over who should complete the term of Councilman Titus Walters.

Walters died Sept. 27. Rashad Almasmari filed suit claiming he should get the two-year post because he finished fourth in a 2013 election for three open seats on the six-person panel.

The city contends the spot belongs to Ian Perrotta. He got more total votes than Almasmari in the election, but he was campaigning for a different council seat with a shorter term, seeking to fill the vacancy of a council member who resigned to run for mayor.

Perrotta was expected to be sworn into the council last week, but Almasmari’s attorney, Mark M. Koroi, won a temporary restraining order to stop it.

Friday, Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert J. Colombo sided with the city’s argument that it had established a practice of awarding the seat to the non-winner who earned the highest vote tally in the previous general election without considering the candidate pool.

“This ruling speaks volumes: it is the electorate who decides who represents them on council,” said J. Travis Mihelick, one of the city’s attorneys. “Individuals who get the most votes will represent the people.”

Almasmari, a law student and corrections officer, said he wants to discuss his options with Koroi. They argued the city charter clearly states the fourth-place finisher wins a position when it becomes vacant.

“I think the ‘fourth-place finisher’ is pretty clear,” Koroi said. “There’s no authority in the city charter that says you can combine the two ballots. And the judge found that it was ambiguous. ... This was a rare situation.”

Almasmari said the issue is “very important to me because I was running for that seat and there’s a lot of people who voted for me. I would like to serve the people of Hamtramck.”

In a court filing this week, Hamtramck’s attorney said the city charter “does not distinguish between elections for council members, but affords all elections equal weight and consideration” when it comes to filling certain vacancies.

“The clear intent … is that the individual receiving the greatest number of votes from the last general election, without regard to candidate pool, is the individual that is entitled to the vacant charter seat,” the filing read.

Hamtramck’s attorney also wrote the city faced a similar situation in 2007 when a councilman died. A legal opinion interpreted the “fourth-place finisher” sentence in the charter “to mean the individual not elected to council who received the next highest number of votes at the last general election of the city, without regard to the field of candidates.” The current city attorney issued a legal opinion this month that reached the same conclusion, the suit said.

Activist Bill Meyer, executive director of OneHamtramck LLC, said that experts he consulted considered the city’s conclusion illogical.

Meyer, a former city human relations commission chairman and vice president of its NAACP branch, also pointed out he thought that Almasmari, a Muslim from Yemen, would have been “only the second Arab in Hamtramck history to hold elected office.”

Mayor Karen Majewski said the issue is not about diversity and that it is important for a neutral source to determine who fills the empty council seat.

“We need a fully functioning, fully seated council,” she said. “We all miss Councilman Walters, and his seat needs to be filled so that we can function properly and so everyone has full representation. I’m just looking forward to getting back to business.”