Council May Give City Manager Wider Authority on Contracts, Potentially Obscuring Transparency

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Monday, June 3, 2019, 6:27 pm
Andrew Graham and Alice Dreger

Above: East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas at the May 14 meeting of City Council.

East Lansing City Council is set to vote tomorrow night on a policy resolution that will expand the City Manager’s ability to enter into contracts without prior consent from Council. The result of the policy could be less transparency where City contracts are concerned.

When Mayor Mark Meadows was Mayor for the first time, Council passed a 1997 policy, allowing the City Manager to enter into contracts up to $10,000 without prior approval from Council.

In 2008, when Vic Loomis was Mayor, the Council approved the resolution presently in effect, raising that ceiling to $20,000.

Both of those policies were unanimously approved.

The new draft policy on tomorrow’s docket does not alter the $20,000 figure directly, but outlines three scenarios in which the City Manager would be allowed to enter into a contract for more than $20,000 without direct Council approval of the specific contract.

The first covers vehicles purchases. The City Manager could, without Council approval, enter into any contract with a vendor to purchase vehicles so long as the aggregate cost doesn’t exceed the amount Council has previous budgeted.

The second covers the purchase of information technology, and puts in place the same parameter as with vehicles: aggregate cost cannot exceed what was previously budgeted.

The third stipulation deals with crises, indicating that “any contract necessitated by an emergency, such as a natural disaster, unanticipated sewer or infrastructure failure or other unanticipated situation in which it is necessary to execute a contract prior to a Council meeting in order to preserve the health, safety and welfare of the community” is allowable.

The policy doesn’t say who gets to decide there is “an emergency,” but it appears this would be the City Manager.

This policy falls under the umbrella of Section 15.3 of the Charter of the City of East Lansing which states in part that “no contract shall be entered into without the authorization of the City Council. The Council may, by resolution, specifically delegate its authority to execute a contract to the City Manager.”

The draft policy follows earlier versions in stipulating that if the City Manager does enter into a contract under this resolution, she or he must report it to Council. That report must include “the name of the contractor, the amount of the contract and scope of the work to be performed.”

But nothing in the policy indicates that such reporting be made readily available to the public.

In practice, this type of policy makes it challenging for the public to know what contracts are being entered into by the City of East Lansing and with whom, because it generally takes notice of contracts off the Council’s published agenda.

That makes it harder to know of and to search for these contracts.

Citizens can always obtain this information via the Freedom of Information Act, but they would have to make a formal request.

Update, June 5, 2019:

Council passed the new policy as drafted, in a 4-0 vote. (Ruth Beier was absent.)

The policy requires that the City Manager advise the City Council in writing about contracts entered into under the policy's exceptions. It does not require any open public notice of contracts or contract-signing under the policy's exceptions.

Responding to this article, Council member Shanna Draheim defended the policy, suggesting it does not reduce transparency. She also said that in a City Manager form of government, which East Lansing is according to its City Charter, this is the right way to handle contracts.

"We are a policy-making body," she said. It is the job of the City Manager, she said, to carry out actions based on the policies.

Mayor Mark Meadows agreed with Draheim that the policy is a good one, and said he is especially glad to have the emergency-related contract exception.

If citizens wish to see contracts covered under this policy, they can make a Freedom of Information Act request. This may result in delays and costs. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info