City Attorney Position Opened Up By Council

Wednesday, April 24, 2019, 8:04 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

East Lansing’s City Council voted unanimously last night to open up bidding on the position of City Attorney, a job currently held by Tom Yeadon. The contract is presently worth over a half-million dollars per year.

Council member Shanna Draheim told ELi after the meeting that Yeadon was asking too much of a raise in his rates for Council not to consider other applicants.

She said that she and Council member Aaron Stephens had recently been negotiating with Yeadon over extension of his contract, which is set to expire in June. She and Stephens decided to ask Council to seek additional applicants.

Anyone who might have wanted to suggest changes to the contents of the draft Request for Proposals (RFP) has now missed that chance. The item was entered as an unexpected “add on” to the agenda only about an hour before Council began Tuesday evening’s meetings, with no special notice given to the public.

The RFP will officially be issued on April 29 with applications due May 31. The RFP includes a list of law firms the City plans to specifically notify of the opportunity.

Interviews are tentatively scheduled for June 10-14, with plans to sign a contract within a week from that.

Council opted to stick mostly with the RFP it used in 2016, when Council decided to rehire Yeadon’s firm. The firm had by that point held the position for fifty or more years, apparently without any bidding during that period.

In 2018, Council decided to renew Yeadon’s contract without RFP in a contentious 3-2 vote, with Draheim and Stephens voting against.

Ruth Beier said at the time she had “sympathy” for the idea of an RFP. She said she had been interested in looking into hiring an in-house attorney “that does not have any conflict of interest.”

Beier noted that “the issue of the retaining wall came up, which was an issue for me.”

She was referring to the use of $150,000 in public funds to build a sidewalk and retaining wall outside Yeadon’s firm’s private property.

That retaining wall project led to a federal fraud case being brought against the City, former Council members, and Yeadon and his partners.

The City ended up paying the firm Foster Swift to defend the case, and with Council’s approval ultimately paid $20,000 in settlement to the whistleblower, citizen Phil Bellfy.

The federal government made the City return $134,300 it said was misused, bringing the total cost to taxpayers of the retaining wall and sidewalk project to about $200,000. Yeadon’s firm never offered and was never asked to reimburse East Lansing taxpayers for any part of that.

Yeadon threatened to sue East Lansing Info if we did not retract all of our reporting on the retaining wall case, including our reporting that in 2012 Yeadon had advised the City on legal easements for the project without formally disclosing that he was the landowner on the other side of the agreements. We made no retractions.

A Freedom of Information Act request confirmed that Yeadon had never disclosed that he was the landowner entering into a legal agreement with the City, an agreement on which he also advised the City as its lawyer. (Rule 1.7 of the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys lays out what is required in terms of management of conflicts of interest.)

At last night’s meeting, Stephens said that Yeadon wanted rates more in line with what other attorneys are being paid for legal work by the City. The City has been embroiled in a number of expensive lawsuits for which it has paid outside counsel, including the Country Mill case and the lawsuit brought by workers at the wastewater treatment plant for exposure to mercury and asbestos.

The City also has been hiring other law firms when Yeadon’s firm lacks the expertise for a piece of policy under consideration, as Council recently did, for example, when working on small cell technology policy.

In voting in favor of the RFP last night, Mayor Mark Meadows said that he thought Council “probably should be looking [at RFPs] as a regular process for a lot of things we do, so I’m very supportive of this.”

Asked after the meeting why the public was not informed that a draft RFP would be considered and voted on, Stephens apologized, saying it had not occurred to him that the public might want to comment on the draft RFP.

Draheim wrote in a follow-up to ELi, “I take responsibility for this being a late add-on.”

She added that she “was honestly thinking about it as a good thing for public engagement and transparency. . . . You know I generally don't like and oppose late add-ons – I acknowledge we could have done better on the timing.”

Draheim concluded, “we welcome and will have time for public input on the next city attorney contract.”

According to the City Charter, Council is responsible for hiring and firing only two people: the City Attorney and the City Manager.

In a controversial move, Council recently voted unanimously to give City Manager George Lahanas a contract extension with a raise.

Draheim, Meadows, and Erik Altmann are up for re-election this November. So far, no challengers to their seats have emerged.

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