Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years, earning numerous awards. He is a regular contributor to Deadline Detroit.
By Chad Selweski
An attempt by two prominent city councilmen to circumvent voter-approved term limits in Warren, Michigan’s third-largest city, faces a legal challenge from an underdog council candidate who smells a scam at work.
The lawsuit filed late Friday afternoon by Lanette Olejniczak also singles out Warren mayor -- and former longtime councilman -- Jim Fouts, demanding that the Macomb County Circuit Court declare that Fouts, facing his third and final term as mayor under the city’s term limits law, is ineligible to ever run for council again.
As the candidate-filing deadline for the 2015 elections approaches on Tuesday, if Olejniczak is successful in court, Council President Cecil St. Pierre and veteran Councilman Keith Sadowski will be knocked off the ballot. That could create a wild political showdown for council seats in a city known for its cut-throat politics.
This story begins in December 2014, in the political slumber between the Christmas and New Year holidays, when Warren City Attorney David Griem issued a dubious legal opinion. He claimed claimed a city charter amendment approved by voters in the 1990s, which limits officials to 12 years in an office (three 4-year terms), is not what the electorate thought it was.
Because the seven-person council is now split between five members representing geographic districts (also known as wards) and two members representing the city at large, Griem suddenly declared that two separate offices exist. Those serving on council could serve 12 years as at-large council members, he said, and another 12 years representing a district on council.
The city attorney’s legal opinion generated outrage among some officials and political activists at the time, but it has lied largely dormant in the ensuing months as the lineup of 2015 candidates takes shape.
“This lawsuit is all about protecting democracy. Seventy-eight percent of voters approved term limits when it was on the ballot,” said Olejniczak’s attorney and spokesman, Richard Sulaka, Jr. “This is all about thwarting the will of the people.”
Sulaka, Macomb County’s deputy public works commissioner and son of a former Warren city clerk, asserted that Griem’s legal opinion could conceivably allow council members to move from district to district, serving 12 years at a time for decades. In other words, he says, Griem's opinion totally undermines the intent of the legislation.
Sadowski, an at-large councilman, has filed for re-election in District 2, not District 3 where Olejniczak resides. St. Pierre is running in District 3.
Hedging her bets, Olejniczak has filed for office in District 3 and as an at-large candidate. An unsuccessful council candidate in 2011, she has until Friday’s withdrawal deadline to decide which seat she will pursue.
In Warren’s world of rough-and-tumble politics, candidates often seek a buzz-worthy surprise factor by waiting to file until minutes or hours before the deadline – in this case, Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Mayor Fouts, who faces only token opposition at this point, has not yet declared his widely anticipated re-election bid. The list of candidates for the seven-member council often extends to 20 or 30 people or more but it stood at just 11 contenders at the end of the day on Friday.
Olejniczak’s lawsuit, which was filed against city Clerk Paul Wojno and the Warren Election Commission, seeks a temporary restraining order to block Sadowski and St. Pierre from the ballot. A court hearing on the motion won't be held until April 27, after the candidate withdrawal deadline.
Wojno and Griem will not comment on matters until they see the lawsuit. Sadowski and St. Pierre could not be reached for comment over the weekend.
Sadowski is up against the 12-year limit as is St. Pierre, who served on council for 16 years beginning in the 1980s and returned in 2011 after a failed campaign for probate judge. The clock started ticking on the councilman’s 12-year maximum in 1999.
Wojno provided Deadline Detroit with a written statement on Sunday that said he will follow the same protocol as in a past dispute, when state officials superseded the city Election Commission in determining a candidate’s ballot eligibility. Ultimately, the courts have the final say.
Griem, a formerly prominent criminal defense attorney, claims that the city council operates as a bicameral legislature, similar to the distinct House and Senate chambers in Congress.
Yet, the council never meets or votes in separate sessions based on district council members vs. at-large council members.
“The words (bicameral legislature) are just not there,” the suit claims. “(The charter) repeatedly refers to a single office of city council, and there is nothing – nothing -- in the charter to indicate the contrary.”
One other key piece of evidence when the Circuit Court takes up this matter: Griem made the highly unusual move in 2014 of researching and writing a legal opinion at the request of a private citizen, former councilman Michael Wiecek, who was term-limited out of office.
And who encouraged Wiecek to make that request? Sadowski and St. Pierre.