Released Documents Show Details Behind Search for Next City Attorney

Thursday, June 6, 2019, 12:25 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: City Attorney Tom Yeadon and City Manager George Lahanas at Council this week.

With City Attorney Tom Yeadon’s contract set to expire at the end of this month, East Lansing’s City Council has remained mum this week about how many applicants have come forward in response to an open call for bids issued by Council in April.

The deadline for applications was last Friday, and the original plan called for Council to interview applicants next week.

While we wait to hear more, documents newly released to ELi under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have revealed details not previously available. Here’s what they show.

Council delayed letting the public know an RFP would be issued.

As we previously reported, when Council unanimously voted at its April 23 meeting to open up the position to a Request for Proposals (RFP), the decision to ask for bids came as a complete surprise to the public. The item was not included on the agenda until moments before the meeting started.

Yet documents released under FOIA show that City Council effectively made a decision to go for an RFP a full week before that meeting.

Council member Aaron Stephens notified Yeadon on April 16 that Council was not willing to pay the increased rate Yeadon was asking.

“While you have made a very valid argument regarding market rates for attorneys in our region,” Stephens wrote in an email to Yeadon, “we can’t make such a big jump in rates/annual costs without doing our due diligence on other offers.”

Yeadon’s firm consequently knew of the coming issuance of an RFP a week before other firms and the public. But Council provided the public no opportunity to know of or to comment on the proposed RFP before it was voted through.

East Lansing is paying much more in legal fees than many comparably sized Michigan cities.

Additional documents released through FOIA show Yeadon trying to keep his firm’s rates for the City of East Lansing below what had been bid in 2016 for a major contender, the firm Secrest Wardle.

Secrest Wardle was a finalist for the position after an RFP went out in 2016 in what appears to have been the first and only time in at least 50 years that East Lansing’s Council looked beyond Yeadon’s firm for representation.

In pre-RFP negotiations this year, Yeadon told Council member Aaron Stephens by email that he believed “it is probably in everyone’s best interest not to put this out for bids right now.”

But Draheim and Stephens had sought to find out what other Michigan cities of similar size are paying for services, and found many paying much less.

Yeadon’s firm had billed the City of East Lansing for about $425,000 in 2018 (with a contract maximum of about $520,000).

By contrast, the City of Saginaw, with a similar population size, paid $211,000 that year. Meridian Township, with a population of 42,000 compared to East Lansing’s 49,000, paid $300,000 that year. (See the comparison chart here.)

In 2018 East Lansing’s total legal costs actually went well beyond the $425,000 paid to Yeadon’s firm. Yeadon’s firm could not handle all of the lawsuits in which the City had become embroiled, so the City paid hundreds of thousands more in total to other firms in 2018.

The Country Mill lawsuit alone had cost $118,000 in payments to Plunkett Cooney through the end of 2018. (ELi reported this week that suit has now come to over $182,000 in total legal costs.)

Outside firms also were hired in 2018 to consult on utility contracts, and to defend the City in lawsuits brought by workers at the City’s wastewater treatment plant, and by citizens.

It appears the City of East Lansing is paying, in total, about twice in legal expenses what many Michigan cities its size are.

The issue for Council seems to have been rates, not performance.

In all of the documents released yesterday by FOIA, there is no indication anyone on Council had any issue with Yeadon’s job performance.

Nor did Council members raise any concerns about Yeadon’s and his partners’ part in the events surrounding the federal fraud suit over the misuse of public funds to build a retaining wall along private property owned by Yeadon and his partners.

There was also no mention of Yeadon having threatened to sue East Lansing Info last summer if we did not retract all of our reporting on the retaining wall case and his part in it. (We did not retract and he did not sue.)

The only issue appears to have been the rates being charged for legal services.

Will this year see a change in who provides primary legal representation to East Lansing?

Last year, Stephens and Draheim tried to open up the City Attorney position to a Request for Proposals but were rebuffed by Mark Meadows, Erik Altmann, and Ruth Beier. But this year, the Council’s vote to issue the RFP was unanimous.

City Council and City Manager George Lahanas have not responded to requests for information about who has applied for the position and what the schedule of interviews will be. The RFP approved in April called for interviews to occur next week, with a vote on a new contract on June 18.

The RFP identified 16 firms, including Yeadon’s, that would specifically receive invitations to apply.

This week’s “communications to Council” packet did include a letter from Richard Hillman of Foster Swift thanking the City for the invitation but saying “we are unable to pursue the contract for general counsel for the reason that we are bound by existing ethical considerations that prevent us from being the City’s counsel on a full-time basis.”

Hillman defended the City in the retaining wall lawsuit, a case in which Yeadon was a named co-defendant. Another attorney from Foster Swift, Brent Titus, is now representing developers Royal Apartments and Vlahakis Development in the major real estate deal they are trying to make with the City on the publicly owned properties on Evergreen Avenue.

According to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, the City Council must make decisions about this contract in public.

 

See documents related to this reporting here, the RFP here, and see the complete response to FOIA request 2019-91 here.

 

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