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Above: Alice Dreger reporting from the ASMSU candidate debate October 14 at MSU’s International Center. (Photo by Raymond Holt)
When ELi polled readers about what issues matter to them as they prepare to vote in the November 5 East Lansing City Council election, the word “transparency” came up again and again.
Three candidates—incumbent Erik Altmann and challengers Lisa Babcock and Jessy Gregg—have put that issue front and center in their campaigns, with Altmann claiming he “took the lead” on government transparency, and Babcock and Gregg pointing to an absence of it under the current administration.
What is the City’s record on transparency?
ELi government reporting staff find that, while a few things have improved (as noted below), the behavior of City leaders over the last four years has sometimes made it very difficult for us to bring you the news. Sometimes actions taken appear to have been specifically aimed at making it harder for us to do our work.
Here are specifics.
The City just instituted what looks like new obstacles to reporting. On Sept. 27, the City notified local media, including us, that “In the interest of greater efficiency and effectiveness in responding to media inquiries,” the City has set up a new portal where we’re supposed to fill out a form to ask questions. (The new fencing doesn’t apply to reporting on the Library, 54B Court, Police, or Fire.)
This doesn’t actually improve efficiency or effectiveness in terms of getting citizens prompt news and information about their government. It tells all reporters to go through additional steps and delays.
We have consistently found City staff in all departments (including Communications) to be perfectly capable of either answering our questions or channeling our requests to the right persons. What this new “media inquiry” portal does is allow top City administrators to more easily see what reporters are looking into.
Documents that should show up automatically in the public record don’t. As we documented yesterday, a total of five anti-court-consolidation communications to Council have now been left out of the published Council communications packet. One of them, a citizens’ petition, seems to have disappeared completely, even though Mayor Mark Meadows (below) said he read it.
Whoever is making the decision to keep these politically dissenting communications out of the public eye must know it makes it much more challenging for reporters and the public to find out about them.
The City Manager uses the City’s website to denounce ELi, but won’t answer follow-up questions. On Sept. 16, I wrote a news analysis detailing how the City is using tax dollars to produce misleading “news.” In response, City Manager George Lahanas denounced that ELi article in a letter to ELi’s Board of Directors and on the City’s website.
Finding multiple errors and several curious claims in Lahanas’s response, I wrote to ask him to fact-check his letter and to ask him where he was getting numbers about the Center City finances.
Lahanas’s response then suddenly disappeared off the City’s website. Totally gone. I wrote to ask why, and whether a correction would be forthcoming. No response.
I have since asked the City via four different routes to explain the numbers Lahanas put forth in his response. No one in the City has answered the questions.
The City fired a whistleblower. The firing of Troy Williams on New Year’s Eve 2018 sent shockwaves through the ranks of City employees who have since taken extra precautions when communicating with us about what they perceive as wrongdoing in the City.
Recently, for example, a City employee tipped us off on a case of alleged theft and embezzlement by another City employee in the parking system. The tipster took extraordinary steps to make sure we could not know who she or he is.
Employees in other departments are also telling us they are afraid to contact us when they see something wrong because of what happened to Williams (below).
More Council meetings are on camera. In his campaign literature, Altmann names as an improvement that “all regularly-scheduled City Council meetings are now televised, live-streamed, and archived on the Web.” That is true, and it does help journalists report news accurately.
But there is still Council business happening off camera. For example …
Council elected not to televise, live-stream, or archive the interviews with candidates for the City Attorney position. Only a handful of citizens could see how candidates for the lucrative position of City Attorney answered questions before Altmann, Mark Meadows, and Ruth Beier voted on camera at the next meeting to again name Tom Yeadon (below) as the City Attorney. The three also voted to give him a new three-year contact with a 25 percent raise. (Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens voted against.)
Council also does not audio or video record votes taken after closed sessions. That includes major votes like the one to settle a federal fraud lawsuit brought by citizen Phil Bellfy and the Department of Justice over illegal use of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds to pay for a new retaining wall and sidewalk along Yeadon’s private property.
In clear violation of the Open Meetings Act, City Council did not even record that vote in the minutes of the meeting. We only found out about the lawsuit through a tip.
Then there’s infamous eBay land sale. Babcock and Gregg (below) have pointed to this as an egregious example of lack of transparency. The City’s Director of Planning put a public property up for auction on eBay, with Council ultimately selling it to the highest bidder at about $1 million.
Only a handful of potential bidders were told of the auction and the City has never explained how they were chosen and why the auction was kept so quiet. Draheim, Meadows, and Altmann acknowledged that publicity of the auction could have been handled better. But it is difficult to understand why simple, free methods such as a press release, statement on the website, and email notice were not used. The purchaser is now seeking millions more in a flip.
We found it remarkably difficult just to find out when the eBay land sale closed. We asked for weeks before getting the answer that it had, in fact, closed several weeks before.
And that’s not the only land deal made without a truly open bidding process. The Center City District deal was made without an updated appraisal of downtown surface parking Lot 1 (the City’s most lucrative property) and without an open Request for Proposals (RFP). The deal includes a 49-year lease of the public land to the developers.
The Royal Vlahakis exclusive purchase agreement on the DDA’s properties was also made without an RFP. We tried to find out who was doing the negotiating on that $100 million public-private deal. Meadows told us at City Council that DDA Chair Peter Dewan was in the lead, with Meadows and Altmann “sitting in” at the closed-door meetings.
Told the next day how Meadows described the negotiations, Dewan laughed and said, “That’s nice to know.”
The new FOIA system makes it easier to see what people are seeking. Altmann correctly says in his campaign literature, “Public records requests are easier to make and logged online for accountability.” When the new system was instituted, we praised it.
But since then, we’ve discovered the new FOIA system is still opaque. Though it shows requests and document responses, it does not reveal the final disposition of FOIA requests, so we can’t know why some documents are not delivered.
Altmann, Meadows, and Beier voted (against Draheim and Stephens) to also make the FOIA appeals process more opaque than it needs to be by putting the power to decide appeals entirely in the hands of the mayor, rather than having Council adjudicate appeals in public.
Council also voted to give City Manager George Lahanas (below) more authority on contracts, also taking more of that public business out of the public eye.
Materials requested through FOIA are also often withheld unreasonably. Here is an example. On Sept. 24, I ordered through FOIA a copy of the revised site plan submitted on 341 Evergreen Avenue. I was told the City needed 15 business days “to search for it,” as if the Planning Department can’t find major site plans.
Last Thursday at the DDA meeting, Planning staff were going over the very site plan that the City supposedly still could not locate for me. On Friday at noon, staff posted that site plan online for the Planning Commission meeting this week.
Still couldn’t locate it in response to my FOIA request, though?
On Monday — the last possible day the City could legally respond — it was released to me.
An ethics disclosure rule exists that didn’t five years ago. Altmann notes in his campaign literature, “New ethics rules require Councilmembers to disclose donations from developers with business before Council.”
It’s actually broader than that, covering all contributors with business before Council. But since the measure passed in December 2015, it has been irregularly followed. That may be because it has no teeth.
There are also ways to get around the ethics rule in terms of gaining influence through campaign contributions. We reported on many people with major business before Council — including specialty law firms and marijuana industry players — giving money to the “Yes” income tax ballot campaign that had been backed by the five Council members.
We could go on and on about how hard it can be for us to “follow the money.”
A couple of weeks ago there was an emergency meeting of the DDA on the Royal Vlahakis deal that we missed because no one in the City announced it via the agenda-notification list or the press release system. There have been other emergency meetings barely announced.
And it’s almost impossible to get answers from the City Manager. Jessy Gregg noted (correctly) in the recent ASMSU debate that in the two years she reported for ELi, the only time Lahanas responded to a communication from her was when he sent her a demand for a correction.
Gregg called at that debate for treating the local press with more respect.
In contrast to Gregg, Altmann does not see ELi as contributing to governmental transparency. In public meetings, including on camera, he has suggested that the local press is misleading the public.
When Altmann (above) served as interim Mayor last year, while Meadows was in Spain on vacation for six weeks, ELi was hit by two unusually aggressive attempts to intimidate us: threats from the City Attorney to sue us if we did not retract all our reporting on the retaining wall case (we did not retract) and the City Manager’s first use of the City’s website to denounce our reporting (also in that case against the evidence).
In sum, we don’t find it easy to report for you under the current administration.
While it is true that some communications systems have improved — such as more Council meetings being videotaped and FOIA requests being publicly logged — roadblocks are still placed in the way of citizens and reporters tracking down important facts about important decisions made by the City.
The original version of this article said that the parking system theft did not show up in the weekly public police reports until after we started asking the City about it. ELPD has since clarified there are two related crimes being investigated: a laptop theft and embezzlement. Read more here.
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