City Council Not Following Its Own Ethics Rules

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016, 10:09 am
Alice Dreger

Above: East Lansing's City Council on the day Altmann, Draheim, and Meadows were sworn in.

East Lansing’s City Council meeting last night marked the first time a Councilmember has made the type of disclosure required by the ethics ordinance passed by this same Council in December of last year. But this does not appear to be the first time a disclosure of this type should have occurred.

Early in last night’s meeting, Councilmember Erik Altmann disclosed that he had received $150 in campaign contributions from East Lansing resident Mark Terry, who had financial business before the Council. Terry was seeking a Special Use Permit, planning ultimately to rent a house in a Historic District to up to seven people, and this request was the subject of a public hearing last night.

As Altmann correctly noted in his remarks near the beginning of yesterday’s meeting, Ordinance 1362 (passed in December by this Council) requires Councilmembers to disclose when they are likely to be about to vote on a financial concern of a person who has given them $100 or more. Altmann also noted that the City Charter prevented him from abstaining on a vote, and because he did not personally have a financial stake in the matter, he could not ask to be recused. As a consequence, he was required to make the disclosure and then vote. (Terry’s request passed 3-1, with Altmann voting against and one member of Council absent. Disclosure: Terry is a donor to ELi.)

When making his remarks, Altmann said he believed this to be the first time a disclosure of this type had been made under the new ethics ordinance. However, this is not the first time it should have been made according to records of City Council’s business and Councilmembers’ campaign finance disclosures.

We are not aware of any other disclosures that should have been made by this point by Altmann, except for the consent agenda vote on June 21, 2016, to put Terry’s item on last night’s agenda. It would seem that, on that date, Altmann should have made the same kind of disclosure he made last night, because it involved a vote on Terry’s project, even if it was not the final vote on the matter.

Mayor Mark Meadows voted last night on a contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and received a $500 campaign contribution from the UAW Michigan V-PAC, a Political Action Committee (PAC). He did not disclose this last night, however the ordinance indicates that contributions from individuals be disclosed, not contributions from PACs associated with organizations having financial business before Council.

It appears Meadows did owe a disclosure when Council was reviewing candidates for the City Attorney position. During his campaign, Meadows received $500 from Jack Davis, a partner in the law firm of Loomis, Ewert, Parsley, Davis & Gotting, which was invited by the City to apply for the City Attorney position. Meadows did not disclose the contribution when Council was voting on the City Attorney applications. (The Loomis firm was not selected for an interview.)

On May 24, 2016, Councilmember Shanna Draheim failed to disclose a $500 donation from Chris Abood when Council was voting on a “façade modification” for the project at 300 Grand River Avenue, a property owned by Abood’s company. The project, still under construction, was once called “The Gateway” and is now called “300 Grand.”

That project is being developed in collaboration with DTN Management. At the same meeting, on May 24, Councilmember Susan Woods failed to disclose that she received a $500 campaign contribution from Thomas Kuschinski, President of DTN Management, and another $500 from Colin Cronin, Vice President for DTN Management. As was true with the rest of Council, Woods voted in favor of DTN’s application on May 24.

Woods’ earlier support of DTN’s requests for tax increment financing on the 300 West Grand River Avenue project came after DTN’s principals donated to her campaign but before the ethics disclosure was introduced by Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier and passed by Council.

Since the ethics ordinance was passed, DTN has also had at least one other development matter before Council, with Woods again voting in favor without disclosure: on June 21, 2016, Woods voted on a “façade modification” request from DTN regarding the addition of balconies to the Garten Haus apartment complex.

If voting on referral of or scheduling of a financial matter does require disclosure, as it would appear, Woods has also failed to disclose payments from the principals of Hagan Realty last night and on April 26, 2016 when she voted to refer and schedule business items of that company. Woods received campaign contributions from Brian Hagan ($167), Jim Hagan ($500), and Matt Hagan ($167), all principals of Hagan Realty.

East Lansing landlords have pushed for changes to the way the City manages nonconforming rental properties, and as ELi previously reported, Woods’ campaign was heavily financed by local landlords and developers, with most of those contributions coming on the day of the election, by which point they would not be apparent before citizens went to the polls.

Woods did not make a campaign contribution disclosure when she voted in January 2016 to name to the nonconforming rental committee two landlords who contributed to her campaign, namely Brian Hagan ($167) and Nancy Marr ($500). (Marr is also a donor to ELi.) Marr’s partner at Prime Housing Group, Lucille Baker, also gave Woods $500 for her campaign.

We did not discern any instances in which Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier should have made a disclosure under the ethics ordinance and failed to do so. However, there may be other cases in which seated Councilmembers failed to make appropriate disclosures of which we are not aware. On June 22, 2016, I wrote to Mayor Mark Meadows to point out to him several apparent violations of the ordinance, with a copy of my message going to all of City Council. He has not responded to that message, and other than Altmann’s disclosure last night, there has been no mention of this issue at Council since that message to Meadows.

The ethics ordinance makes no specific provision for what should happen if a Councilmember violates the ordinance, although the Oath of Office taken by Councilmembers includes a promise to "support...the Charter and the Code of the City of East Lansing" and to "faithfully discharge the duties of Councilmember of the City of East Lansing according to the best of my ability."


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