Your ELi: Power and Transparency in East Lansing’s Government

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Sunday, June 16, 2019, 10:08 pm
Alice Dreger, Publisher

Should ELi back away from its focus on transparency in East Lansing’s City government, and just trust that City leaders are making good decisions?

That suggestion has arisen in response to two recent rounds of ELi reporting, one on City Council’s choice to let the City Manager enter into more contracts out of the public eye, and the other on Council’s decision-making on the City Attorney contract, also out of the public eye.

Council member Shanna Draheim has said that our reporting on these issues makes it sound like something nefarious is going on. She and a couple of commenters on ELi’s Facebook page have suggested that what’s going on here is “standard practice” for Michigan municipalities.

Draheim works for the Michigan Municipal League, which makes her pretty qualified to know about standard practices. Of course, that job also means she’s effectively paid by municipal governments’ upper management – not exactly a disinterested position on this subject.

But let’s say, for a moment, that this lack of transparency is standard practice in Michigan. Does that mean we should accept it?

East Lansing’s elected officials have chosen to spend a lot on causes where they want to be seen as leaders.

As we’ve reported, the City has spent almost $200,000 fighting the Country Mills lawsuit, framing it as an important case for LGBT rights. (The plaintiffs have framed it as an important case for religious freedom.)

City leaders have also opted to spend quite a lot of money on environmental leadership, investing in a solar park, hybrid vehicles, and an extensive recycling program.

The City is also spending about $5 million on Avondale Square – almost $200,000 per home in taxpayer subsidies – to provide moderate-income housing.

Not every Michigan city does these things in terms of LGBT rights, environmentalism, or housing. Does East Lansing have to be “standard” in terms of governmental transparency, or could this be an area where officials see a chance to be viewed as leaders?

Notably, the City has moved lately to improve transparency in terms of Freedom of Information Act requests, budgeting, and video broadcasting some nonvoting meetings of Council.

But we still see ongoing and widespread inconsistencies.

And transparency is not a partisan issue. People of all political affiliations – unless they have a personal interest that disincentivizes them – want transparency from their governments, and they want reporters like those on the ELi team to push for it.

If City Council really wants more people to trust East Lansing’s government, experts suggest that the way to achieve that is through more transparency, not telling them to “just trust us.”

Trust in local government starts with transparency; the Open Meetings Act is no exception. (Photo by Andrew Graham)

Let’s also remember why people in East Lansing may not trust this government.

This is the City Council that voted to settle the federal fraud suit over the retaining wall case but never recorded or made public the vote, a flagrant violation of the Open Meetings Act. Council only followed the law after ELi broke the story.

That federal whistleblower lawsuit centered on the City’s failure to disclose City Attorney Tom Yeadon’s conflict of interest in the use of Housing and Urban Development funding to build an expensive new retaining wall alongside his and his partners’ private property. In other words, at the center of the lawsuit was transparency failure.

And that transparency failure lasted for years. As early as 2012, citizens were calling on (yelling at) the City to make the conflict of interest disclosure. The Justice Department ultimately stepped in because one citizen, Phil Bellfy, just wouldn’t let it go.

Yeadon subsequently threatened ELi with a defamation lawsuit, insisting that we retract all of our reporting on the subject. That would have obscured the truth again. (We didn’t retract, because our reporting was accurate, and he didn’t sue.)

The list of problematic action continues.

This City Council has held surprise meetings with no meaningful notice to the public.

It has also given a sizable raise and new contract to a City Manager whose administration fired a wastewater treatment plant pipe mechanic after he alerted authorities to a cover-up of a major mercury spill and to troubling mismanagement of asbestos hazards at the plant.

As ELi has documented, City Manager George Lahanas also misled City Council about what happened to workers at the plant and what happened after the mercury spill.

Lahanas also used the City’s website in what appears to have been an attempt to intimidate us, to stop us asking about fire marshal reviews of the Center City District project.

And shall we talk about the eBay land sale, while we’re talking about lack of transparency? This government has still never explained why only a few, hand-selected individuals were let in on the auction of a million-dollar piece of property. Why wasn’t top-dollar sought on behalf of the taxpayers of East Lansing?

I’ll be honest: my job as ELi’s Publisher is sometimes miserable.

This is a small City, and we are all pretty interconnected. Pushing like we do is not fun.

But I didn’t found this public service news organization to have fun. I founded it because I believe the people of my city deserve to know what is going on with their government, as much as we deserve to know what is going on with our county, state, and federal governments.

I had a feeling, when I started ELi, that there would be enough people here who felt the same mission I did to create a news brigade, and thank goodness my hunch was right.

Five years in, we’ve had about 140 people in the community function as reporters for us. We’ve brought thousands of original reports. We’ve helped people here be empowered through the provision of news and information. We’ve helped people who are parents, caregivers, taxpayers, college and high school students, small business owners – and even some of our elected officials – know the truth.

That’s because we believe in giving power to the people through informational reporting.

If you believe we’re doing this wrong, and we should back off on pushing as hard as we do for transparency, let me know.

If you believe we are doing the right thing, consider joining with me today in making a financial contribution to the ELi team. What we do requires your financial help. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info