Controversies hamper activist Flint official

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Flint — When Gov. Rick Snyder apologized for Flint’s water crisis during his State of the State address last month, Flint City Councilman Eric Mays felt faintly vindicated.

Flint City Councilman Eric Mays is in court Feb. 1. He was convicted of disorderly conduct during a council meeting.

Mays was one of the first elected officials to raise questions about the water and, for 13 months, was often a solitary political voice as he railed about its quality, said residents.

But the councilman couldn’t call anyone about the governor’s speech. He watched it from the Genesee County Jail, where he was serving a 22-day sentence for impaired driving.

That scenario captures Mays, 57, a longtime activist who has been a polarizing figure during his two years on the council, said residents.

His criticism of the water and the city’s former emergency managers has some residents hailing him as a hero.

But his effectiveness has been hampered by a persona some find grating and personal foibles that sometimes overshadow his public efforts.

He frequently interrupts council meetings with long diatribes and, after such an outburst, was convicted of disorderly conduct this month. He will be sentenced March 11 and faces up to three months in jail.

With Mays, the message sometimes gets lost in the messenger.

“I get in council meetings, they want me to shut up,” he said during a water protest last year. “I get here, they want me to shut up. Everywhere I go, they want me to shut up.”

Mays’ outspokenness has earned him some powerful enemies.

When he ran for mayor last year and an election mix-up left him as the only candidate on the ballot, the Governor’s Office pushed to get his challengers added to the slate, according to emails released by Snyder’s office last month.

The candidates were eventually added and psychologist Karen Weaver won the election.

Mays, a retired autoworker, prides himself as a bane of mayors and emergency managers, a scourge of courtrooms and council chambers.

He’s tall, wiry and theatrical, but his greatest asset may be his voice, say supporters. It’s deep, rumbling and seldom ceases. Some friends call him The Voice.

Friends concede Mays may enjoy listening to his deep, rumbling baritone a little too much but said he’s a tireless advocate for his ward, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden in the city.

He’s a struggling hero for a struggling city, they said.

“He talks a lot, he’s loud, but he’s Eric,” said Colette Metcalf, a member of the Water Warriors, a group of residents who have protested the city’s water quality. “He’s the only one who stood up to this for a long time.”

Loud but ‘for the people’

In September 2014, Mays found himself in a familiar political spot — by himself.

Flint had just issued a spate of boil-water advisories. Five months earlier, the city had switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

Residents were complaining about the color, smell and taste of the water.

Mays, already upset about the price of the water, began questioning city staff about its quality, he said. Told the water system was old, he wondered why the system didn’t have similar problems with Lake Huron water.

In a Facebook post that month, he said the City Council should hold investigative hearings and question city workers under oath.

“What is important is that we deal with it honestly, openly and publicly,” he wrote.

But city and state officials insisted the water was OK, and the rest of the council members didn’t see a need for such a hearing, according to council minutes.

Mays didn’t give up.

Working with residents and ministers, he organized town hall meetings, protested on the steps of the state Capitol and met with officials from the Governor’s Office.

“He’s loud, but he’s for the people,” said Dorothy Batchelder, another Water Warrior.

In January 2015, Mays invited the director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to talk to the Flint council about switching water service back to the Detroit system, which used water from Lake Huron.

The council wouldn’t put the issue on the agenda, so the director, Sue McCormick, had to speak during the public portion of the meeting, according to the minutes.

Two months later, the council finally came around, voting 7-1 to temporarily return to the Detroit water service.

But then-Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose, who had ultimate authority, nixed the move, citing the high cost of returning to Detroit.

Flint eventually returned to Detroit water service in October, nine months after Mays proposed the idea.

Extension proposed

During the city’s mayoral election last year, Flint City Clerk Inez Brown told candidates the filing deadline was April 28.

She later learned the correct date was one week earlier. By the time she caught her mistake, Mays was the only candidate who had filed his nominating petitions on time.

The other three candidates, including incumbent Dayne Walling, would have to run as write-in candidates.

In an April 30 email, Beth Clement, Snyder’s deputy chief of staff, shared her concern with the governor and his staff.

“Eric Mays, the Flint city councilman who ... has been very problematic to both our EM and secure cities efforts, is the only candidate who filed by the April 21st deadline,” wrote Clement.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley responded by saying the problem was big enough to consider changing state law.

“Too much progress has been made in Flint to let it go to this guy,” he wrote.

Snyder suggested in an email that the staff give the issue to Sen. Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat who is the Senate minority leader.

Twelve days later, Ananich proposed a bill to extend the filing deadline, which would allow all the candidates to be listed on the ballot. Lawmakers passed the bill, which Snyder signed.

Ananich initially said last week he was never contacted by Snyder’s office. When told the Governor’s Office said it had talked with him, he said he had misspoken.

In separate interviews, Ananich and Snyder spokesman Dave Murray both said they didn’t want to “disenfranchise” voters by offering them just one choice on the ballot.

Ananich said he liked Mays but that activists don’t always make the best elected officials.

“When an activist runs, sometimes they’re successful and sometimes not,” he said. “Sometimes passion gets the best of him.”

Making ‘crazy decisions’

After three attempts, Mays was elected to the Flint council in 2013.

He barely got in, squeezing past his opponent, 710 to 702.

He won despite having been convicted of felonious assault in 1987.

Mays said last week he had brandished a .357 Magnum after a man threatened him and was placed on probation for a year.

Such exploits have some residents questioning whether he should have been elected.

“I just think he makes some crazy decisions and acts like an insane person,” said resident Reiny Crump. “Why would I want this man to represent my city?”

Mays wasn’t the only controversial winner in the election.

Also joining the council were two people who had filed for bankruptcy and a third who served 19 years in prison for killing a man, according to public records.

Three weeks after being elected in November 2013, Mays was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

Police found him standing outside a damaged auto talking on the cellphone at 3 a.m., according to the police report. The car was facing the wrong way on the interstate just outside Flint.

The Chevy Impala was leaking fluid, a front axle was snapped and a headlight was smashed out, said police. Two tires were flat and two others shredded.

Mays told police he had been drinking Grey Goose vodka at a victory party and recalled feeling a bump while driving the car, according to testimony at his trial.

“I still believe someone put something in a drink and cut the tires,” he said last week. “That’s my conspiracy theory. I still believe in it somewhat to this day.”

Police found remnants of the car three miles away near a union hall where the party was held, according to testimony.

Mays was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated, possession of marijuana, refusal to be fingerprinted and leaving the scene of an accident.

Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, who had been a frequent target of Mays during the campaign, seized upon the Nov. 30 arrest to demand his resignation.

When Mays demurred, Earley tried to strip him of his powers.

The emergency manager issued an executive order that prohibited Mays from talking to city staff and said he could communicate with the manager only by email.

If residents in Mays’ ward needed anything from the city, they should ignore the councilman and contact the city clerk, according to the Dec. 13 executive order.

Earley said Mays was a distraction that interfered with his ability to run the city.

“(Mays) engaged in loud, uncivil, unprofessional, aggressive and erratic behavior,” Earley wrote in the order.

By that point, the fledgling councilman had attended just two council meetings.

Mays just ignored the restrictions, he said.

Drunk driving trial

Jury trials are rare in Flint district court, which handles misdemeanors.

Over five days in 2014, a six-person jury heard the drunk driving case.

Mays represented himself at his 2014 trial, offering several theories of what happened that night: He was drugged. His tires were slashed. Someone else was driving.

During his questioning of a police officer, he removed his dentures while asking whether the false teeth could have affected the results of his Breathalyzer test.

“If the teeth fit, you must acquit,” he told the jury.

His blood-alcohol content, which was measured twice, was 0.10 and 0.11, which are above the legal limit of 0.08, testified police.

During the entire trial, Mays positioned his briefcase so a black-and-yellow sticker on it, reading “Uptown Development While Flint Decays,” faced the jury.

Before closing arguments, special prosecutor Michael Gildner turned the briefcase around.

Mays called a friend to the stand to ask whether the friend, Johnny Billings, was driving the car that night. Billings invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Billings would say during a later trial that Mays had orchestrated the whole thing, asking him to take the stand and plead the Fifth.

Judge Nathaniel Perry became increasingly exasperated by Mays’ tactics and legal mistakes.

“You’re backing yourself into the jailhouse,” Perry said during one dispute. “You’re playing with the wrong” person.

In June 2014, the jury rendered its verdict.

Despite the results of the Breathalyzer, Mays’ admission to police he had been drinking and driving and the testimony of ten police officers from three jurisdictions, the jury acquitted Mays of two charges, reduced drunk driving to impaired driving, and deadlocked on leaving the scene of an accident.

The impaired driving verdict was overturned when a higher court ruled that the trial judge didn’t sufficiently warn him about the legal risks of being his own attorney.

During a retrial in November 2015, Mays represented himself again and was convicted again.

Disorderly conduct

Mays was going to council meetings long before he became a councilman.

He began attending in 1981 as a political action representative for the Flint branch of the NAACP, he said.

A wallflower, he was not.

He has been kicked out of several meetings for talking too long, he said. The arguments sometimes continued afterward with Mays confronting council members and city staffers.

In 2012, he was convicted of disturbing the peace for refusing to be quiet at a public hearing, according to court records, and paid $425 in fines and court costs.

The eruptions continued after he joined the council.

He remains more of an agitator than a dealmaker, said critics. He has been an outsider so long he knows little else, they said.

“When the world is always wrong and you’re always right, there’s something wrong with that,” said Councilwoman Jackie Poplar, who has frequently sparred with Mays.

“If he can’t have his way, he’s like a stud missile out of control.”

In July 2015, Mays complained during a meeting of the council’s finance committee that city workers didn’t cut the grass in his ward but took care of members like Jackie Poplar, who supported the mayor’s re-election.

Mays said he didn’t understand how a city that spent $22,000 to prosecute him for drunk driving didn’t have that amount of money to cut the grass.

According to a video of the meeting, Mays kept talking as committee chair Monica Galloway tried to move the session along.

Poplar, 68, taunted Mays by holding her thumbs to her ears and wiggling her fingers.

That further incensed Mays, who was eventually removed by a police officer. It was the fourth time in 20 months he had been kicked out, according to trial testimony.

“That is the most ignorant thing I’ve ever seen a grown fool do,” he said about Poplar’s action.

Mays was charged with disorderly conduct. After a three-day trial in district court, a jury found him guilty on Feb. 1.

Tearful welcome

When Mays left jail after serving his sentence for impaired driving last month, a small crowd was waiting for him.

The 10 supporters, who included friends and Water Warriors, held signs and hugged the councilman in the lobby, said participants.

Mays, who began to cry, later said he was surprised by the turnout. Maybe someone is listening after all, he said.

“In life people shouldn’t have to struggle and fight so hard for what is right,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 30 years.”

“I want people to give me my props. I want people to say, ‘He’s right.’ ”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell