City Says It Can’t Find “Park Place” Site Plan
Above: City Manager George Lahanas and the Park Place East building as shown to City Council on Dec. 11, 2018.
Responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from ELi, the City of East Lansing claims it can’t easily locate the site plan application for Park Place, a major public-private redevelopment project being considered for East Lansing’s downtown. The site plan application was supposed to have been turned into the City on December 17, the business day before our FOIA request.
The City said in response to ELi’s FOIA request that it needs ten additional business days – a span amounting to about three weeks, given holidays – to “search for” the application for a project expected to involve tens of millions of dollars of investment and the long-term use of public land by the developers.
City staff is supposed to currently be working on that site plan application in order to ready it for presentation to Planning Commission in early January.
City Manager George Lahanas, who was recently named the City’s FOIA coordinator by City Council, did not respond to a request for comment sent earlier today.
On Thursday, December 13, the Park Place developers signed a deal with East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority that required that the developers turn in the full site plan application by the close of business on Monday, December 17. ELi filed its FOIA request to see the application late in the evening of December 17.
If the application was not submitted, the response to the FOIA request should have come back “no records found.” The response received appears to indicate that the site plan was submitted, but that the staff can’t easily locate it to provide it under FOIA as the law requires.
Michigan FOIA law allows exemptions for certain types of documents, such as those that involve personal medical information or sensitive information relevant to an ongoing police investigation. Site plans are not subject to FOIA exemptions and are public documents that must be released upon request.
According to the FOIA guidebook prepared by the Michigan Attorney General’s office, local governments cannot “arbitrarily and capriciously” violate FOIA. If found to have done so in a court case, the City of East Lansing could be required by a court to pay actual damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages of $1,000, and civil fines.
ELi has previously reported on FOIA problems in the City, including in a case where the City recently inappropriately withheld information about public lawsuits. In the same case, Mayor Mark Meadows declared himself the person in charge of deciding FOIA denial appeals, even though the City’s then-existing policy named the City Manager as having that power.
Meadows and Lahanas subsequently acted to have City Council rearrange FOIA powers according to how they wanted to see it carried out – with Lahanas acting as the City’s legally-designated FOIA coordinator, instead of the City Clerk, and Meadows acting as the sole arbiter in cases of local appeal.
In the resolution passed by City Council on December 18 in a vote of 3-2, the change in FOIA powers affected not only future FOIA requests but all prior ones as well. It consequently covers ELi’s FOIA request on the Park Place application, made a day before the 3-2 vote on a new FOIA policy at Council.
Meadows, Erik Altmann, and Ruth Beier voted in favor of the change in FOIA policy. Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens voted against, saying they wanted to understand more about the planned changes before voting.
The policy showed up unexpectedly, without any statement of purpose, on a consent agenda, for the December 18 meeting, meaning that Meadows (who arranged the agenda) had been seeking to have it passed without discussion.
Draheim and Stephens attempted unsuccessfully to delay vote on the new FOIA policy until the next Council meeting, in January.
The Park Place project was presented to City Council orally in unfinished form on December 11. At that point, plans called for a 14-story building along Abbot Road and a 12-story building along Evergreen Avenue, near Valley Court Park, just north of Peoples Church.
Planning Commission voted two days later 6-2 against recommending a draft ordinance that would have prepared the way for a building of that size along Evergreen Avenue.
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