Citizen Petition Mysteriously Disappears Inside East Lansing’s City Hall

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Monday, October 21, 2019, 7:00 am
Alice Dreger

Above: George Lahanas and Mark Meadows at the Aug. 13 meeting of the East Lansing City Council. (Photos by Raymond Holt)

East Lansing resident Joanie Brogan describes herself as a “not very politically active” person. But she was moved on the issue of court consolidation to start a petition against it—a petition, she says, that was ultimately circulated through her among her neighbors in Whitehills as well as in the Bailey and Pinecrest neighborhoods.

Now, that citizen petition has mysteriously disappeared.

The City Clerk officially notified ELi on Friday, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed almost a month ago, that City personnel cannot find it.

The petition, which had been addressed to Mayor Mark Meadows, the four other members of City Council, and City Manager George Lahanas, asked why Council has not openly consulted with East Lansing residents about potentially consolidating East Lansing’s 54B District Court into a single Ingham County court system: “At the very least we need our judges and council members to attend to explain to us how this benefits or disadvantages our citizens.”

“We choose to live here and pay some of the highest property taxes in the county along with a new income tax,” the petition read, according to the text Brogan drafted, saved, and shared with us yesterday. “Why is our council not representing our interests in keeping our court? … We oppose the transfer of our court to the county.”

Reached yesterday by phone, Brogan told ELi she isn’t sure how many people ultimately signed the petition she started. She knows there were at least two pages of signatures, and estimates that perhaps 75 residents signed it before it was submitted.

She knows for sure that Meadows saw it. He recently mentioned it to her while campaigning for re-election. But apparently Meadows could not produce it in response to ELi's FOIA request.

Asked yesterday afternoon by email about the petition missing from City Hall, Meadows responded at 12:30 a.m. this morning that he remembers reading a “letter” from Joanie Brogan "signed by 8-10 other people.”

He said that he “would never assume that a letter sent specifically to me is intended to be made public.”

Yet the communication organized by Brogan was not addressed only to Meadows. It was also addressed to the rest of Council, as well as the City Manager.

Additionally, our FOIA request asked for a “petition or any letter similar to a petition” on this subject, which means that if Meadows had this “letter” that was “signed by 8-10 other people,” he had to release it under FOIA. He did not.

Lahanas has not yet responded to questions sent Sunday afternoon about why his staff can find no record of the citizens' group communication.

Systematic suppression of dissent over court consolidation?

ELi learned of the existence of Brogan’s petition the way we learned of four other communications objecting to court consolidation: not by virtue of their inclusion in City Council’s published “communications received,” but from people letting us know about them.

Back in April, the Friends of the Ingham County Veterans’ Treatment Court wrote to City Council to object to court consolidation. That letter was not included in published “council communications.”

The Lansing chapter of the NAACP also objected in a letter in May to East Lansing’s Council. That was also excluded from published communications.

In May, David Jordon also wrote to Council, in his case specifically in his position as a judge retired from 54B District Court. That anti-consolidation letter was also not included in published “council communications," even though it, like the others, was addressed to all of Council.

And more recently, in July, the two seated 54B District Court judges, Andrea Larkin and Richard Ball, wrote to the full Council about their concerns about consolidation, offering “to meet with any or all of you [on Council] to answer any questions regarding this decision.” This letter, too, was excluded from the published record.

In all of these cases, we looked for the communications in the next packets of written communications attached to the Council’s agendas, and in all cases, the anti-consolidation communications were not there.

This appears to be a highly unusual situation.

East Lansing City Council’s published packet of “communications to Council” often includes what most people would see as spam: sales on promotional mugs and pens, mass mailings from national political groups, and stump letters from candidates in distant states.

Yet five politically dissenting communications—from two seated judges, one retired judge, the local NAACP, a veterans’ group, and now a group of dozens of East Lansing residents—all against court consolidation have all been excluded.

Tipped off by a City worker about the existence of an anti-consoliation citizens’ petition submitted in August, on Sept. 24 ELi used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to try to obtain a copy of it.

The City Clerk’s office responded by taking the maximum extensions allowed under law to “search for” such a document. Then, on the day the response was due, October 15, City Clerk Jennifer Shuster extraordinarily called to ask by phone for another few days to try to locate it.

Finally, on Friday, October 18, Shuster wrote to inform us that our request was being “denied as the City of East Lansing is not in possession of records” that we requested. City staff could allegedly not locate Brogan’s communication.

But Brogan says that she knows the City received the petition, both because Meadows told her he had seen it and because Emily Gordon, Assistant to City Council, recently called to ask her if she had a copy of it that she could share. (Brogan only has the original version, not the one signed by dozens of residents.)

Brogan explained by phone yesterday that she decided to organize the petition because of her own experience helping two MSU students who had made “foolish mistakes” as their cases went through the local court system. In those experiences, Brogan found the 54B District Court humane and effective, and she wants to preserve that institution here.

She also explained that she has been friendly with Judge Andrea Larkin for many years. Larkin won her seat on the court in 2012, defeating her opponent by a 13-point margin.

That opponent was Mark Meadows.

A controversial issue, but not one openly discussed at City Council in the last year

The Lansing State Journal recently reported that talks over court consolidation have stalled, with the idea being unpopular among many influential individuals and groups.

Meadows has been steadily meeting in closed-door sessions on court consolidation but has not brought the matter back to an open session of East Lansing’s Council session since almost a year ago, when Council voted to participate in talks about consolidation.

By contrast, the Law and Courts Committee of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners recently received a report about “draft three of the District Court Consolidation.” That report came at its September 12 meeting from Bryan Crenshaw, Chair of the Board of Commissioners.

But here in East Lansing, Mayor Meadows has stayed silent on the matter at City Council. Brogan’s petition was aimed at forcing the matter into public discussion.

ELi could appeal the claim that the petition can't be found

Shuster’s formal denial of our FOIA request came with the standard language for a denial, indicating that if we are unsatisfied with the response, we can appeal. If we were to do that, the appeal would go to Mayor Mark Meadows for his deliberation. That's because last December, City Council voted 3-2 to give Meadows the power to adjudicate FOIA appeals.

Meadows, Erik Altmann, and Ruth Beier voted in favor of giving Meadows that power, a power not previously held by the mayor of East Lansing. Council members Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens voted against.

Meadows and Altmann are now running for re-election to Council, while Draheim is stepping down. Four challengers—Lisa Babcock, Jessy Gregg, John Revitte, and Warren Stanfield—are also running for the three open seats.

ELi does not plan at this time to appeal the FOIA denial, as it would appear to be the case that no one in City Hall, including Meadows, can locate the petition.

The document seems simply to have been lost. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info