Mayor’s Handling of Planning Commission Appointment Criticized

Thursday, December 3, 2015, 2:36 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Mayor Mark Meadows’ handling of an appointment to Planning Commission this week is receiving sharp criticism because Meadows failed to interview all three candidates or to do so cooperatively with the Chair of the Planning Commission, as is standard practice.

Meanwhile, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier and Councilmember Erik Altmann are also being criticized for their essentially silent support of Meadows’ actions at Tuesday night’s Council meeting. Some see Beier’s and Altmann’s actions in this matter as constituting exactly the kind of partisan politicking and favoritism that they had said they objected to during the recent Council campaign.

Planning Commission had one open spot to fill, and three people applied for that spot: John Cahill, Keith M. Hagen, and Jon Hansen. Planning Commission is arguably the most powerful board or commission in the City (other than Council).

When there is an opening on a board or commission, practice has been for the Council liaison to the board or commission to work with the chair to interview candidates. The Council liaison then consults with the chair and recommends to City Council the person(s) to appoint. These kinds of appointments are generally uncontroversial enough that the appointments go on the consent agenda of Council—that is, the part of the agenda that is simply passed with a unanimous block vote and no further discussion.

The appointment of John Cahill to Planning Commission was indeed on Council’s consent agenda for this Tuesday’s meeting. But Councilmember Susan Woods asked to have it removed and discussed and voted on separately, which is what happened.

At Council, Woods asked Meadows if it he had in fact not interviewed Hagen and Hansen with the chair of the Planning Commission. Meadows confirmed that was true; he had not interviewed them. Woods said she believed it was important to follow the customary procedure, “even if one [candidate] is way more qualified, so that it becomes an even playing field.” She said she thought the appointment of Cahill “was a bit premature.”

Meadows told Woods in response that she could follow the customary process if she wanted, but he didn’t see any reason to do so in this case. Woods again objected. To this, Meadows replied that he thought all three candidates were well qualified but he thought Cahill was the best candidate and he wanted to quickly fill the empty seat.

Meadows said, “I did not interview the other candidates because I had made the decision to appoint or to recommend the appointment of Mr. Cahill and I thought it would be insulting to them to interview them knowing that I wasn’t going to recommend them.”

At this point, Councilmember Shanna Draheim echoed Woods’ comments. She told Meadows and the rest of Council, “I think we have a process and I understand what you’re saying in terms of not wanting to waste their time but I also think this sends a bad signal to people who come forward” and go through the trouble of applying. Draheim said that Meadows’ actions were carried out “over the objections of the chair of that commission, which I find is a little striking, that we would move so quickly to do something especially when the current chair of that disagrees.”

Draheim continued, “I think this is something we have talked a lot about—transparency, and good government, and it strikes me that if this is something that even had been done previously, you know, there would have been a lot of uproar about it.” She added, “I am disappointed. I think the process [as used here] was disappointing.”

Right after this, Beier, who supported Altmann and Meadows in the election, said there were openings on the Housing Commission for which Hagen and Hansen could apply. She then moved approval of the appointment of Cahill, which Altmann seconded, with no further comment from Altmann. Meadows called for the vote. Meadows, Beier, and Altmann voted for; Draheim and Woods voted against. (This 3-2 vote means Cahill was appointed.)

Meadows’ actions along with Beier’s and Altmann’s essentially silent support of them led to a number of people writing or speaking to me about this as a significant issue with City government. Most of those individuals objecting to what happened have historically been visible supporters of Meadows, Beier, and Altmann, but all felt what had happened was exactly the kind of lack of transparency and appropriate process—a kind of politicking—that would have, as Draheim suggested, caused an “uproar” had it been carried out by Mayor Nathan Triplett, Meadows’ predecessor.

To understand why this is seen as politicking, one needs to understand the partisan alignments in the background: The Chair of Planning Commission, with whom Meadows did not cooperate in the usual fashion, is Julie Jones-Fisk. Jones-Fisk is married to Mark Fisk, president of the Glencairn Neighborhood Association and one of the landlords now pushing at the State level for legislation that would take away East Lansing’s ability to govern a zoning matter of concern to landlords; so Meadows is essentially fighting Mark Fisk (and other landlords) on this issue at the Capitol.

Fisk is also the business partner of Diane Byrum in a political consulting firm, who is in turn the mother of Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum. Barb Byrum filed a campaign finance complaint against Meadows and Altmann just days before the election, and also endorsed Triplett and Draheim during the elections, effectively in opposition to Meadows and Altmann.

I reached out to Hagen and Hansen—the two candidates not chosen for Planning Commission—by email to ask them for their take on the matter. Hansen did not reply, but Hagen sent a statement.

Hagen said his reaction “is one of overall disappointment. I am disappointed that Mayor Meadows received three applications from in his words ‘three qualified applicants’ and then decided to interview just one. Perhaps this was how things were done during his first term as Mayor but things are not done that way anymore.”

Hagen said he thought Cahill is “a very good choice” and he wished him well, and added that he held “a much greater disappointment in Council members Altmann and Beier. In Altmann's campaign and in Beier's very open support of that campaign they trumpeted transparency and doing things in the appropriate fashion. While Council members Draheim and Woods spoke up about the lack of transparency and discussed the need for following the processes in place, Council members Altmann and Beier remained quiet.”

“I hope they understand,” Hagen added, “that transparency and following appropriate processes means that you do them all the time and not when convenient or if it fits your needs. I for one would like an East Lansing where you say what you mean and do as you say and that is how I intend to use my spare time helping to create a more positive East Lansing.” (Read Hagen’s full statement here.)

In an email interview this morning, Draheim indicated she understands that filling a gap on Planning Commission is important, but reiterated that transparency and appropriate process are key: “I feel strongly that council follow good government practices in everything we do, recognizing that we have a lot of work to get done and we are trying to move ahead and best serve the city.”

We previously reported the unusual speed with which the new Council moved to send significant items to public hearings. That also involved an unusual practice, namely Altmann and Meadows essentially putting items on City Council’s agenda before they were sworn in.

I asked Draheim today whether she had been invited to do the same. She replied, “I was not asked whether I had items to put on the agenda. Presumably I could have asked to do so, but personally my focus was on beginning the work once I was sworn in.”

 

If you want to watch a video recording of Tuesday’s discussion of this matter, click here and move the arrow to the 34:30 mark.

Reminder: Citizens can speak at or write to City Council on any issue, including those not on the agenda. Email can be sent to Council by writing to council@cityofeastlansing.com.

 

 

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