The City of East Lansing is poised to look for a new City Attorney after Mayor Jessy Gregg and Mayor Pro Tem Dana Watson — who had been in early negotiations with Foster Swift, the firm currently serving as East Lansing’s general counsel — reported to Council on Thursday that talks on contract renewal had reached an impasse, mainly over costs.
Because of the inability to come to terms with Foster Swift, Council directed the City Manager on Thursday to have staff issue two Requests for Proposals (RFP) for what could be two new City Attorney contracts, one for general counsel services and one for the City’s prosecutorial needs. (The City has a separate prosecutor from Ingham County’s to cover charges specific to the City’s laws.)
All four members of Council said they were comfortable bidding out the contracts, though no formal vote was taken.
There was no attorney from Foster Swift present at Thursday’s meeting to represent the City and advise the Council, as there normally is at Council meetings.
The new RFPs will go out as soon as City staff can get them done and will provide 30-day periods for firms to respond, likely putting the City right up against the expiration date of its current contract with Foster Swift.
The current contract between the City and Foster Swift was cost-capped at $500,000 annually, with exceptions for certain services (like litigation), and runs until the end of next month. City Manager George Lahanas did note that the current contract can run beyond its expiration date of Sept. 30, and the City will be charged the same rates but with no cost cap, putting the impetus on the newly-constituted City Council to move swiftly on this issue.
As Gregg described it, the Council’s hope had been to arrange to renew the contract with small changes. She said they did expect a request from Foster Swift for more money. But Gregg said the changes Foster Swift ultimately proposed weren’t things with which she was comfortable proceeding without filling in the rest of Council first.
For the new contract, Foster Swift had proposed lowering the cost cap to $425,000 for general services, while removing the cap on the work they do as the City’s prosecutors, Gregg said. Gregg said that Foster Swift estimated the prosecution work would cost the City around $200,000 annually.
That meant the total cost of the new contract proposed by Foster Swift would be roughly $625,000, something none of the four Council members were OK with. Gregg also suspected that the $200,000 estimate for prosecutions is low, as Foster Swift’s only year serving as City Attorney was an outlier due the pandemic.
“We didn’t have our full student body back,” Gregg said. “Now we have essentially two incoming freshman classes and the — I’m calling it high spirits — that might ensue. So I think $200,000 [for prosecutions] is probably a low estimate. I’m bracing for some action this fall, I guess.”
While Gregg effectively chalked the disconnect on the proposed contract up to a philosophical difference about how much the City should be paying, Council member Ron Bacon, who originally pushed for the cost cap, was apparently frustrated by Foster Swift trying to raise the price.
Bacon felt the City had made clear from the RFP in 2020 that they wanted to keep their legal costs low or capped, and not just for the first year, but as a general mode of operation. He didn’t appreciate how Foster Swift attempted to cut against that and urged that it be made clear in the upcoming RFP what the expected scope of the job is.
“So, I won’t give them a clear pass here,” Bacon said, “But yeah, I think making sure that we explain the scale of a regular year and make sure that firms are coming in and bidding … just making sure they understand the scale and scope of the work in a real year, not based off Covid numbers.”
Lahanas said he would see if City staff could include more information about the scale of the job.
Watson did not comment about the matter except to say that Foster Swift could respond to the RFPs if they wish to do so.
When previously discussing contract renewal for Foster Swift, the prospect of separating the City’s prosecutions from other civil and municipal legal matters had come up and Council did seem interested in the idea — but members wanted to make the separation while maintaining the $500,000 cost cap.
Foster Swift obtained the half-million-dollar-a-year City Attorney contract after three members of Council — Aaron Stephens, Lisa Babcock, and Jessy Gregg voted to terminate the long-standing contract with then-City Attorney Tom Yeadon. That led to the immediate resignation of the two other members of City Council, Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows. This month, Stephens also resigned, to pursue graduate work.
Last fall, Council interviewed four applicants for the position of City Attorney before awarding the contract to Foster Swift. One of interviewees, George Brookover, is now running for City Council, as are the two people who were appointed to fill Beier and Meadow’s seats — Ron Bacon and Dana Watson.
Now, coming close to November’s City Council election, the search for the next City Attorney(s) will add even more shaking-up to East Lansing’s already-well-shaken City Hall.