Someone Apparently Wants City Manager in Charge of Public Records Requests

Monday, December 17, 2018, 3:27 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: City Manager George Lahanas, City Clerk Jennifer Shuster, and Mayor Mark Meadows.

With no explanation for the shift provided, and no public discussion of the matter planned, City Council is set to vote tomorrow night to put the City Manager’s office in charge of handling public records requests, instead of having the City Clerk’s office in charge.

If the item passes as written, City Manager George Lahanas will also be in charge of setting the policy for how such requests are managed. He will then be able to decide, without consultation with Council, such issues as who rules on appeals of denials of public records requests – deciding, for example, whether the Mayor will have powers that might otherwise be held by City Council as a whole.

The change has not been discussed in public meetings.

The East Lansing’s City Clerk’s office has been handling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for many years. Former City Clerk Marie Wicks tells ELi that when she took the office in September 2011, she handled FOIA, and did so “through my tenure,” except for police- and fire-related FOIA, which is handled by staff in those departments.

Wicks’ successor Jennifer Shuster has been handling FOIA since taking over the office from Wicks early this year.

Wicks and Shuster followed policy specifically voted on by City Council as a whole. The existing policy, unanimously approved by City Council in May 2015 and signed by then-Mayor Nathan Triplett, specifically named the City Clerk as the FOIA coordinator, a position required by the State of Michigan’s open records law.

But now, for unknown reasons, the current City Council is set tomorrow to vote on its consent agenda on a resolution to give Lahanas the FOIA coordinator position and to let him “set forth the City’s policies, procedures, and guidelines for accepting and processing FOIA requests in accordance” with State law, without consultation with Council.

An item listed on the consent agenda is normally an item considered unworthy of discussion by Council. Multiple items on the consent agenda are passed together with a single voice vote, although any member of Council can ask to have an item pulled off a consent agenda for discussion and a dedicated vote.

If the resolution passes, one thing Lahanas could change is who rules on appeals when records are denied to the public.

ELi reported on Saturday that Mayor Mark Meadows recently issued a legalistically-elaborate ruling declaring himself the ultimate authority in terms of East Lansing’s responses to denials of FOIA requests. Meadows insisted in his undated response to an appeal from ELi that he is the “head of the public body” according to the City Charter.

But this is in direct contradiction to the City’s existing FOIA policy, which states, “The City Manager, being the chief administrative officer of the City pursuant to the City Charter, is designated the head of the City for purposes of all appeals made pursuant” to State law.

Again, if the policy passes tomorrow as written, Lahanas could then, without asking Council, make the Mayor the "head of the public body" for purposes of deciding on FOIA appeals.

In an unusual move, the nature of the resolution on tomorrow’s City Council agenda isn’t even mentioned in the agenda itself. It is referred to merely as “Approval of Policy Resolution 2018-14,” with no explanatory title or memo.

ELi contacted Shuster and the five members of City Council this morning to ask why this change was being put into motion. None have responded.

FOIA is a chief means by which citizens (including reporters) find out what’s going on behind-the-scenes in local, state, and national government. FOIA can be used, for example, in cases like this to try to find out from whom this resolution originated.

ELi has previously reported that under the current City administration of Meadows, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann, and City Attorney Tom Yeadon, it has been challenging to obtain records that are supposed to be public.

UPDATE: Find out what happened at the meeting in our follow-up report.

 

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