Fight Over Michigan City Council Race Hits Federal Court

DETROIT (CN) – Four city council members in a Detroit suburb lost their spots on the ballot because of an incorrect interpretation of term limits, their supporters claim in a federal lawsuit filed over the weekend.

Voters wait in line on Nov. 6, 2018, in Southfield, Mich., near Warren. (Clarence Tabb, Jr /Detroit News via AP, File)

Represented by Livonia, Michigan, attorney Mike Cox, constituents Sallie Hock, Jason McClanahan, Clifford Frost and Darrell Vickers sued the Warren City Election Commission and City Clerk Sonja Buffa in Detroit federal court on Saturday.

They sued on behalf of the incumbent candidates they support: Robert Boccomino, Cecil St. Pierre, Scott Stevens and Steven Warner.

The constituents claim the candidates being stricken from the ballot violated their own rights to due process and political association.

Warren voters decided in 2010 to be represented in the city council by five members from individual districts and two at-large members.

The city charter states that “a person shall not be eligible to hold the position of city council … for more than the greater of three complete terms or twelve years in that particular office.”

According to the lawsuit, Buffa allowed candidates to run for three at-large terms and three district terms.

The city attorney issued an opinion in 2014 confirming the practice of treating the at-large and district council seats separately.

A voter challenged this practice in 2015, but Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Diane Druzinski allowed it to stand. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed.

However, at-large candidate Connor Berdy took the issue back to Macomb County court this year. Judge James Maceroni ruled in his favor by removing the four incumbent council members from the August primary ballot.

The state appeals court reversed the decision on June 6, but the Michigan Supreme Court turned the tables back in Berdy’s favor last week.

“We agree with the dissenting court of appeals judge that the Warren charter provides for a single class of city council members, subject to the term limits of the greater of three complete terms or 12 years in that office,” the state’s high court ruled.

The plaintiffs noted that the disqualification took place after the filing deadline, so they can’t find alternative candidates or run for office themselves.

“Both the timing and the ruling of the Berdy state court litigation here impact plaintiffs’ rights to associate with their candidates and effectively cast their votes,” the lawsuit states.

While acknowledging that Buffa and the commission are “operating under the color of law,” the plaintiffs claim they have lost their right of association and their right to cast an effective vote.

“Each plaintiff believes that if the challenged candidates are struck from the ballot, their voices will not be heard on city council over the next four years,” the complaint states.

They constituents want a federal judge to put the four candidates back on the Aug. 9 primary ballot.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Cox, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Warren City Attorney Ethan Vinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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