Four City Council Members Collaborate with Developer on "Yes" Campaign; "No" Campaign Criticized for Lack of Transparency

Wednesday, October 29, 2014, 7:55 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

In what appears to be a first, a group of sitting East Lansing City Council members has let a developer pay for a political mailing in which those Council members advocate for a “yes” vote—a “yes” vote from which the developer would likely financially benefit. The mailer apparently does not reveal that the developer, DTN, is funding this political advocacy letter from the Council group, instead only indicating that the letter comes from “East Lansing Park District Committee.”

The latest campaign disclosures by East Lansing Park District Committee show donations totaling $10,000 comprised of two $5,000 donations from DTN management. (There are no other donors.) The new mailing concerns a ballot question on the possible sale of three city parking lots for a project DTN wants to build in the Park District.

The four Council members who agreed to let the developer use their name and City titles in the political mailing are Mayor Nathan Triplett, Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris, Kathy Boyle, and Susan Woods. Council member Ruth Beier did not sign the letter and has said, “I think voters should vote 'no' on the land sale on the ballot because this Council, as constituted, has shown that the interests of developers are more important that the interests of city residents."

I asked Goddeeris if she is comfortable that the mailing using her name and title (Mayor Pro Tem) does not disclose that DTN paid for the mailing. She replied that voters could look up the campaign disclosures of East Lansing Park District Committee if they wanted to know who is funding the mailing. She added that, “The mailing was done appropriately according to campaign finance laws on ballot initiatives.”

I asked Triplett if he doesn’t think it looks funny to allow a developer to pay for a mailing in which Triplett advocates for a “yes” vote from which the developer will likely benefit financially. Triplett said, “I think that the Council advocating on behalf of a position for a ballot measure that we put on the ballot is not funny at all.” Triplett said that the developer’s interests were not his concern; he said the city’s interests are his concern. He believes DTN’s proposed project is in the interests of the City.

When I asked him for his comment on this development, former Mayor Mark Meadows said, “this is another first for the City of East Lansing—and not a good first.” He added, “What you are describing is a mailing which features Council Members and is paid for by a developer PAC and which urges a yes vote on an issue where a yes vote will directly benefit the developer.” (Note: The organization is not technically a PAC; it is a Ballot Question Committee.)

Meadows told me, “The circumstances and the close association between the developer and the City Councilmembers who will be featured on this campaign literature give the lie to the Council claim that the vote is just about the authorization of a sale. If the [development] deal was not done already, why would the developer pay another 10 to 12 thousand dollars to distribute this literature?” Meadows is suggesting DTN would not be investing money in this mailer if the company did not expect to land the lucrative deal associated with the parking lots sale.

Joe Manzella, the public relations representative for DTN, confirmed that DTN is ultimately paying for the mailing. Although the four Council members’ letter is represented only as being paid for by the East Lansing Park District Committee, according to Manzella, “DTN has made very clear throughout the election that they are the group funding the pro-side of the campaign and has never presented the campaign committee as anything more.”

When I interviewed Manzella a month ago about “vote yes” mailers that did not clearly disclose DTN’s relationship to the “vote yes” mailers, he told me, “for the rest of our mailers we will try to make sure that people know Colin [Cronin, principal of DTN] and DTN are behind it. We definitely didn’t mean to create confusion on this already confusing issue, thanks for bringing it to our attention!” I asked him and Cronin today why newer mailers and paid advertisements have not been stating plainly that DTN funds them, as Manzella told me would happen, and they have not answered.

Manzella did tell me, “In your overview column on the ballot question, I hope that you will also look into this Neighborhoods First (1st?) group. They present themselves as an ‘executive board’ of neighborhood leaders, but never disclose the names of the members of this board. According to their recent campaign finance report, 82% of their funding comes from two individuals.”

The latest campaign disclosures by Neighborhoods 1st show that donors include Ruth Beier ($200), Donald Power ($100), Jeffrey Michael Astrein ($100), Mary Lou Terrien ($100), Jonathan Harmon ($100), James Anderson ($3,450), Alice Martin ($100), Raymond Vlasin ($200), Maureen McCabe Power (Power’s wife; $2,793), Richard Brotsch ($100). Donations in kind are indicated as coming from Eliot Singer ($250), Liesel Carlson ($300), and Brian Reinerth ($100).

Don Power, leader of Neighborhoods 1st, continues to refuse to disclose who is on the Executive Board of the PAC, although I continue to ask. Campaign filings reveal that Jonathan Harmon of Holt is the treasurer, and we have confirmation that Power and James Anderson are also on the executive board.

This refusal to disclose the names of the PAC’s full executive board is causing criticism and suspicion not just among the DTN team, but among voters. John Bails of Whitehills told me, “I don't have a dog in this fight.  The only thing that irritates me more about driving by the decaying western edge of our city twice a day is the fact that everyone I know received a poorly written mailer about it from a group that claims we need more transparency in local government while at the same time refusing to disclose who they are.”

Bails points out that Council member Ruth Beier, “the one member of local government that voted against putting forward the ballot question at issue,” is a significant contributor to Neighborhoods 1st, and says, “I think that Neighborhoods 1st PAC's refusal to disclose a serving Councilmember's activity and active support would provide much more context to your readers.”

I asked Beier if she is on the Executive Board of Neighborhoods 1st, and she replied that she is not. I asked her if she regrets contributing to them. She replied, “I don't agree with all of the tactics used to oppose the ballot question” but said “no,” she does not regret donating.

Meadows suggests that the DTN-funded mailing from the four Council members may be a sign that polling has been done and the measure is likely to fail.

Some are suggesting that the ballot question is ultimately a vote of confidence or no-confidence in management of the City. Writing on Public Response, Scott Bame recommends that “If you do not know how to vote for the City Hall proposal of selling the three City parking lots, vote as a referendum of how you feel City Council and the City Manager George Lahanas are performing their duties. Vote the proposal yes if you feel they are doing a good job and vote no if you feel they are not doing a good job.”

Similarly, Meadows concluded his remarks to me by saying, “The danger of the Council Members involving themselves this way is the vote may morph into a referendum on their performance. That could be good or bad depending on your views.”

 

This article was corrected on October 29, 2014, to fix a mistyping of James Anderson's name.

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