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Originally published July 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 26, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Young mayor's no-contest plea divides his Michigan town

Pranks and boys go together like peanut butter and jelly, which is why many adults shrug and say, "Boys will be boys. " But when the prank...

Chicago Tribune

HILLSDALE, Mich. — Pranks and boys go together like peanut butter and jelly, which is why many adults shrug and say, "Boys will be boys."

But when the prank is a felony and the boy is the mayor, tolerance is quickly put to the test. That's the morality play running in this college town about 100 miles southwest of Detroit, where a high-school kid who drew national attention in 2005 when he won an improbable write-in campaign for mayor has, as a 19-year-old college student, recently pleaded no contest to computer hacking.

There's plenty of head-shaking and eye-rolling in Hillsdale over the behavior of Mayor Michael Sessions. Adding tension to the drama is an effort to oust Sessions through a recall campaign, dividing this town of 8,200 people.

"We all made mistakes at that age. We just didn't make them in the public eye," said Patti Bailey, who runs a downtown women's clothing store.

Age is beside the point, argues Jeff Buchhop, a former city councilman who is leading the movement to boot Sessions from office. Buchhop says Sessions "has the leadership responsibility" as mayor and should not be cut any slack because of his age.

Hillsdale is in a law-and-order mood these days, due in part to a wave of graffiti, such as one entry on a railroad trestle reading, "Welcome to Helldale."

Sessions' crime is not as visible. He admitted posing as someone else and using the password of a friend, his former campaign manager, to send disparaging e-mails to Eastern Michigan University and to his friend's mother. He also deleted some online accounts.

He faced two felony charges, which were dropped after he entered a no-contest plea this month. Sessions, who has publicly apologized for his actions, completed 40 hours of community service this week, performing tasks at a local hospital and senior center.

The question now is whether Sessions, who is about to enter his sophomore year at Hillsdale College, has paid sufficient dues.

"I don't know if he should be recalled," said Becky Elston, a clerk at a downtown jewelry store. "Yes, he's the mayor, but he's still a boy."

Legally, of course, Sessions is an adult. But he is still viewed by many as the boy mayor who stunned the local political establishment in November 2005, knocking off the incumbent with a write-in campaign. He won by two votes, 670-668.

The mayor's job here is largely ceremonial; the city manager does most of the heavy lifting.

Sessions, who lives at home with his parents, arrived Wednesday at a county elections commission hearing with his mother, father and attorney in tow. The commission, for the moment, blocked the recall ballot proposal because two of the three members said they did not understand some legal jargon in the proposal.

Sessions apologized in an interview and, like a seasoned politician, repeatedly stressed the need to "move forward as a city."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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