What Does ELi Face Under the Current Administration?
Above, l-r: City Attorney Tom Yeadon, City Manager George Lahanas and Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann.
Earlier this week, an exchange occurred in Facebook messages following publication of our special report on Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann’s latest actions around medical marijuana regulation.
A reader asked us who Altmann thought he was “protecting” in his approach, to which our Managing Editor Ann Nichols responded, “If we knew that, you can believe we’d report it.” The reader responded, in part, “Ask him why [he’s doing what he’s doing]? You’re better than this.”
Is Eli “better than this”?
Ann and I don’t normally bother to tell ELi’s readers the challenges our reporters go through as we try to wrest information from the leaders in our local government. Our reporters’ job is to tell you what we do manage to find out, not complain about what we can’t.
But today we want to explain some basics of what ELi, East Lansing’s only dedicated independent news organization, faces under the current administration. We’re also going to tell you about two extraordinary things that happened while Altmann was Acting Mayor, to help illustrate what we face in terms of interactions.
First, to be clear, not all City leaders act the same way in response to our questions. Council Members Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens answer questions from us with relative frequency.
Currently, we almost never get any answers from Altmann, Mayor Mark Meadows, or Council Member Ruth Beier. We get answers from City Manager George Lahanas only rarely. We almost never get an answer from City Attorney Tom Yeadon.
None of these people hold news conferences – the only exception has been when the Mayor hosted one for the Center City District project – so there is no opportunity for us to ask questions live. On occasion, I ask questions for ELi reporting from the podium at City Council. But my questions there often go unanswered.
Last night, I did get an answer to a question at the podium, but in the past, one Council Member told Ann and me that by asking questions from the podium, we are “creating news,” and suggested that we should stop it.
When we can’t get “public records” any other way, we use the Freedom of Information Act to try to find out what’s going on. City administrators (not the City Clerk) sometimes make us wait three weeks for a single document recently discussed in public. We’re told they’re having trouble locating it.
For a recent request to see documents that are supposed to be available on demand to anyone during normal business hours, the City asked us to pay over a thousand dollars.
Meanwhile, materials kept at the City Attorney’s office are said “not to be in the City’s possession,” and therefore “not public records” – not available under the Freedom of Information Act. That’s because the City Attorney is not technically an employee. (He’s a contract worker.)
We try to keep up on what’s happening with “public” meetings so we can keep you informed. But this Council does extraordinary things in apparent violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act. Examples:
- This Council voted to settle a major fraud suit with the federal government (the one over the City Attorney’s retaining wall) and never recorded the vote until we broke the story and forced disclosure.
- They recently held a meeting with virtually no public notice. (That wasn’t the first time.)
- Meadows, Altmann, and Beier recently emerged from City Hall talking together about fifteen minutes after Council had ended (as witnessed by me and my spouse). The Open Meetings Act prohibits meetings of quorums outside public meetings except for events like award ceremonies and specially announced closed sessions.
- This Council regularly goes into closed session to discuss litigation involving the City without stating which cases they’re going to discuss, contrary to the Open Meeting Acts Guidelines.
As alluded to above, when Meadows was in Spain for six weeks, and Altmann became Acting Mayor, the City became particularly aggressive toward ELi.
Two actions stand out – and keep in mind, as you read the rest of this, that the two people who took these actions, the City Manager and City Attorney, are the only two people City Council has responsibility to hire and fire. Their jobs directly depend on pleasing a majority of Council.
First, while Altmann was Acting Mayor, the City Manager sent an open letter to our Managing Editor and our Board of Directors denouncing our reporting on lack of fire reviews for the Center City District project as being wrong and “misleading.” In fact, research and more research (some of which we haven’t yet published) shows we have been accurate in those reports. We don’t see anywhere we are wrong on that.
I have asked, repeatedly, for the City Manager to release any written documentation of fire reviews for that project, as required by law and code. Not a single document has been released.
But you know what? A full two months since Lahanas sent out that open letter essentially denouncing our work, the City’s front webpage still has that letter up denouncing ELi, even as lots of other “news” from the City has cycled through the City’s front page.
We can only assume this is an attempt to intimidate us.
Second, while Altmann was Acting Mayor, the City Attorney threatened in writing to sue ELi, me, and Ann for defamation. He demanded we retract all of our reporting on the retaining wall case.
Yeadon took no further action after I responded to his letter, but I asked Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to comment for our readers more generally on this kind of threat of a lawsuit. Reporters Committee Staff Attorney Sarah Matthews provided this:
“It’s extremely troubling when a frivolous lawsuit is filed (or threatened) against a news organization in an attempt to silence or retaliate against critical reporting. Even if there is no merit to the lawsuit, the specter of an expensive legal battle can have a chilling effect on the media and deprive the public of important news and information.”
So, if you think we can be “better than this” at getting information out of this administration, we’d like to know how.
One elected official has suggested to us that we could get better access to Council’s thoughts and plans if we didn’t make them look bad. We don’t think it’s our job to make Council look good or bad, and, more importantly, we’re not going to make deals with public officials. We are an independent press and we have to report even uncomfortable news.
If you think we’re doing a pretty good job, we could use your help today. We have a national matching grant right now, and we are trying to raise enough to achieve sustainability for 2019. If you think this work is worth supporting, help us out now. Every dollar you give will double.