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Crazy Local Government Scandals Are This Michigan County's Specialty

Warren, Mich., Mayor James Fouts

Warren, Mich., Mayor James Fouts Carlos Osorio / AP File Photo

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There’s never a dull moment in Macomb County.

A mayor is holed up in his office, communicating to the outside world mostly through Facebook. He dodged a procedural bullet when a commission in March threw out six petitions seeking to remove him from office.

A county executive is accused by the mayor of conducting an illegal potentially toxic dumping operation. As alleged payback, the executive released audio of a man who sounds like and may well be the mayor denigrating women, ethnic minorities and disabled children.

A county clerk had to recuse herself from weighing in on the recall efforts targeting the mayor because, as a political activist who on occasion dressed in a tinfoil suit, she led efforts to recall him three times herself. Now, in the five months since she joined county government, she is the target of two lawsuits, has lost her office computer privileges, fired two whistleblowers, crashed a county car, hid in a bathroom before phoning the police to avoid a reporter asking questions, and was caught on video stashing moving boxes as part of an effort to stall a long-planned county records transfer.

What is going on in Macomb County, Michigan? In recent months it has served up a steady stream of head-spinning storylines that offer a peek into its eccentric, fractious and dysfunctional political universe in this mostly suburban jurisdiction just north of the Motor City.

The details of the action seem scripted by a darkly comic satirist.

Jim Fouts is the 74-year-old three-term mayor of Warren, the third-largest city in the state with around 135,000 residents. The audio that has inspired recall petitions and has him hunkered down on social media and in his office surfaced in the fall and will not go away. Fouts contends the audio was faked, maybe “with Adobe software.” Detroit-area TV news teams have asked experts to analyze the recordings.

Mark Hackel, the Macomb County executive, has said that Fouts, in his zeal to get back at him for releasing the audio, is scaring citizens by ringing public safety alarm bells. Hackel, according to Fouts, is engaged in a “cover up” and compared the dumping to the drinking water crisis in Flint caused by lead pipes.

“There are no public health concerns,” Michael Taylor told The Detroit News in November. Taylor is mayor of Sterling Heights, a neighboring city where the alleged “illegal dumping” took place. "I'm disappointed at Mayor Fouts's actions and allegations which have alarmed and upset people,” he said. “I’m also surprised that if he had a concern about something in my city he didn't pick up a phone and talk to me about it."

Fouts wrote on Facebook that “dark forces” are arrayed against him and that the city treasurer hijacked his Facebook page.

The treasurer, Lorie Barnwell, said she is one of the targets of the vengeful personality Fouts hides from the public. She has pointed out that Fouts removed her husband from the housing commission and ordered her image and an informational video on her office removed from the city website.

“What people don’t realize is the man behind the mask isn’t who they originally thought… There’s a lot of darkness in him,” Barnwell told The Detroit News in late April.

Fouts has said he is staying put until the end of his term in 2019.

Meantime, county officials are bracing for more trouble from stumbling Clerk Karen Spranger. They say the rookie, anti-government office-holder has served up at least one scandal for every month she has been in office, but that new tough state recall rules give them little room to maneuver.

"It's almost comical in a strange way, but at the same time, I don't think people realize the potential problem this is leading to," Bob Smith, the Democratic chairman of the Macomb County Commission, told Michigan Radio last week.

"We have to find a way to make this work," Republican Commissioner Leon Drolet said about Spranger. "If we can make some breakthroughs in cooperation, even if it requires the patience of a saint, then I think we're all better off for it."

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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