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City of Warren, Mayor Fouts sued over resident's dismissed arrest at council meeting

A Warren man has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that Mayor James Fouts orchestrated his arrest with the police department in a bid to silence his criticism of the mayor's stalled downtown development project.

Joel Vanderlinden, a one-time city of Warren employee, filed the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Fouts, the city and police department as well as a friend of the mayor.

Vanderlinden was arrested last July after a City Council meeting for allegedly assaulting Jerry Bell, a resident and friend of Fouts. But the charges were dismissed with prejudice by a 37th District judge.

Jon Marko, an attorney representing Vanderlinden, said the alleged sham arrest and the actions of the Police Department at the behest of the mayor triggered this lawsuit. There's a video of the meeting that shows his client didn't assault Bell, he said.

"He's the mastermind of this whole scheme and that's the scariest thing about this. This is political reprisal," said Marko, who was scheduled to hold a noon Zoom news conference about the lawsuit.

Marko played the video of the council meeting last July when his client only verbally sparred with Bell but they did not come in close contact. A police officer at the meeting came to break up the argument between them.

Because Vanderlinden was a "vocal critic of Mayor Fouts" and spoke out against the mayor's plans and implored the City Council to act as a check and balance, "he made an enemy of the mayor because of it," Marko said.

"The mayor sent Jerry Bell to get into an altercation with Mr. Vanderlinden and then used this altercation as a basis to charge Mr. Vanderlinden with a crime he didn't commit," the attorney claimed. "Fouts' plan was to have Mr. Vanderlinden arrested at the next City Council meeting in front of everyone to humiliate and embarrass Mr. Vanderlinden."

Raechel Badalamenti, an attorney representing the city of Warren for the lawsuit, said Tuesday the dispute was between two people at a council meeting and that “I don’t know why the mayor is named in the lawsuit.”

“I don’t think anyone completely understands why that might be, but they are reaching to try and somehow loop him in to some liability. We are all pretty shocked and surprised,” Badalamenti said. 

Fouts and Vanderlinden, she said, “talked as recently as a couple of weeks ago about a mutual friend that just passed away. They have a good, cordial relationship. Whatever his political views are, the mayor appreciates his public input and talks to him regularly, takes his calls, visits with him.”

Badalamenti said the criminal charges were not the idea of the mayor but Bell, who felt “threatened by Mr. Vanderlinden. That’s what he reported to the police department.”

“I don’t think that the mayor has an opinion one way or the other whether people are arrested or prosecuted when other citizens report fear of them,” she said.

The police department, Marko said, gave his client a heads-up about the pending arrest and Vanderlinden turned himself in.

"He didn't touch him. It's on the video," Marko said about Bell.

A resident reported to police a threat of bodily harm by Vanderlinden, which is the definition of assault, Badalamenti said in a later email, noting the city attorney separately decided to authorize charges. A judge "sustained the charge of assault at an arraignment hearing where bond was set for Vanderlinden," she added. 

Vanderlinden is requesting an unspecified amount of  monetary damages "as a result of damage to his reputation; embarrassment, public humiliation, emotional distress, 

and mental anguish," according to the lawsuit.

Fouts could not be immediately reached for comment.

The $170 million downtown development project is one of many battles between the longtime mayor and the city council. The mayor wants a town square adjacent to city hall with retail, dining, apartments, a food market and a hotel that would draw residents and others and bolster the city.

MORE: Why Warren is in 'a state of war' between Mayor Fouts and City Council

Council members opposed to it say they are trying to hold Fouts and his administration fiscally accountable. The mayor and his allies say the council doesn't like Fouts and is trying to take away a victory from him — an accusation they deny.