It’s been over three months since City Council decided to look for a new City Attorney after failing to negotiate a new contract with Foster Swift — the law firm that currently holds the contract. The slow pace for finding a new City Attorney centers on Council’s discussions about whether the work of the City Attorney should be given entirely to one firm or divided among two.
Hearing little about progress on this matter, readers have asked us what’s going on, so today we took a closer look.
Although their current contract ended Oct. 1, Foster Swift continues to serve East Lansing as City Attorney on a monthly basis — at $225/hour and without a cost cap — as City Council inches closer to deciding who will get the next contract.
At the Nov. 16 City Council meeting, City Manager George Lahanas wanted Council to schedule interviews for the five applicants who responded to the City’s Request for Proposals (RFPs) for the City Attorney contract. Instead, Council members addressed a longstanding discussion about separating the duties required by East Lansing’s City Attorney.
While this conversation moves Council closer to an oft-discussed policy goal, it’s delayed the process of replacing Foster Swift.
The East Lansing City Attorney serves in two main capacities: first as general counsel for municipal services — advising the City Council and City Staff on municipal matters and representing the City in civil court — and second as a prosecutor for the City in the 54B District Court. The goal is now to have specific contracts for those distinct jobs: one for municipal legal advice, another for prosecution.
In July 2021, while Council members discussed renewing Foster Swift’s contract for another year, they also began talks on splitting the contract in two.
In August 2021, discussion regarding how to appropriately bid the two positions separately resulted in the idea of creating two separate RFPs, one for each respective service performed by a City Attorney.
Although all members of Council at the time expressed that they were comfortable with sending out separate RFPs, no formal vote was taken on the matter, and a singular RFP for a new City Attorney was put out by City staff.
Five firms submitted proposals to be the next City Attorney. These applications were submitted under the previous terms — that a singular contract will be awarded to one firm to perform both duties for the City. The current applicants include the following five law firms: Thrun Law Firm, P.C.; Clark Hill; Giarmarco, Mullins & Horton, P.C.; Miller Johnson Attorneys; and The Law Offices of Casey D. Conklin, P.C.
The public can view more information about each firm as well as each firm’s application here.
At the Nov. 16 meeting, when Lahanas asked Council to pick interview dates for these five applicants, Council then decided to begin moving forward with the separation of the duties.
Mayor Ron Bacon said that he “would be open to discussing the separation of the two roles and having separate RFPs.”
He then asked the Council if anyone else was open to the idea.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg suggested introducing the separation of the duties during the interview process in order to avoid the delay that would come with a new RFP.
Council member George Brookover, an attorney and a newly-elected member of Council, had a different suggestion.
In an effort to remain as fair as possible to the applicants, as well as any additional applicants that might now apply in lieu of the separation of roles, Brookover recommended an RFP addendum.
“Send a brief addendum [to the applicants], a paragraph, [and] give them two to three weeks to respond. It shouldn’t take long to respond,” Brookover said.
Council member Lisa Babcock said Brookover’s idea “acknowledges that some of our applicants have no interest in criminal prosecution whatsoever.”
She suggested that splitting the contract might attract more applicants.
“If anyone wants to modify or add to their bid based on this dichotomy, we want to see their new bid,” Brookover said.
In an effort to clarify and summarize the discussion around City Attorney proposals and next steps, Lahanas reiterated that they will send an addendum to each firm that has applied, as well as to new firms, detailing “that we will consider each [role] separately and bid them separately. Council may select one service from one [firm] and one service from another.”
Council will also request each firm extend their proposal past the original 90-day period which expires Dec. 24, and will discuss interview times at a later date.
With this new timeline, the public may expect to hear next steps before the end of the year, but it is likely that Foster Swift will continue their duties as City Attorney into the new year.
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