The author of an undated and unsigned eight-page draft plan to reorganize a significant portion of East Lansing’s government has now come forward and identified himself – in part to challenge an anonymous complaint made against leaders in East Lansing’s city government.
The eight-page document in question had outlined a plan to create a new Department of Culture, Equity, & Placemaking that would – if created as described – fall under the Department of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). It would have involved moving funding and staff from various units of the city.
The existence of the plan first came to light in the anonymous complaint released by Council on April 24. That complaint chiefly alleged illegal overreach by Mayor Ron Bacon. It claimed as an example that, allegedly, “The Mayor told George [Lahanas, the city manager] the Council wanted him to effectuate the plan.”
Now we know the author of the draft plan was Adam Cummins, at the time the city’s Community & Economic Development Administrator.
Cummins sent a message to East Lansing’s City Council Monday night (May 1), copying East Lansing Info (ELi). He identified himself as the author and wrote, “not a single city employee nor city official directed me to draft the proposal and I received no input on the draft proposal because, to my knowledge, the draft proposal never gained any traction beyond conceptualization.”
Cummins does not say whether Bacon advocated for his plan to the city manager, as claimed in the anonymous complaint.
But in his letter, which he saved under the file name “Complaint Response,” Cummins challenges the perception that this draft plan was special. He attaches samples of 10 plans he worked up in his time at the city, bringing his communication to the council to a total of 269 pages.
In sharp contrast to the complaint, which was signed “Anonymous Public Servant,” Cummins signed his letter with his name and the title “Proud Public Servant.”
Cummins says he quit his job with the city earlier this year because of “a difficult work environment – not the plan referenced in the complaint. I am extremely hopeful,” he wrote to Council Monday night, “that new leadership at the city will result in a work environment more conducive to creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving.”
He also insists his eight-page draft plan “should no longer be the focus of discussion.”
Cummins’ letter helps to explain why the plan did not come to light until it was named in the anonymous complaint.
But the complaint suggests the draft plan hit a nerve within City Hall because it fed the perception that the organizational power structures as described in the City Charter were being undermined as, according to the anonymous complaint, the mayor took Cummins’ plan to the city manager and asked for implementation.
Bacon has not responded to questions about whether this claim in the complaint is true. But ELi now knows that, after Cummins resigned on Jan. 27, Bacon contacted Cummin’s then-director Peter Menser to ask Menser to try to get Cummins’ resignation rescinded. This was mentioned in the anonymous complaint to Council and has been independently verified by ELi.
In pointing to these anecdotes, the complaint’s contention is that the mayor has been repeatedly violating the section of the City Charter that states, “neither the Council nor any of its members or committees shall in any manner interfere with the City Manager in the exercising of his or her judgment in the appointment or assignment of administrative officers and employees in the administrative service. Neither the Council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any of the subordinates of the City Manager.”
The Charter’s provision about the boundary between elected officials and city staff has two effects: it keeps staff from having six or more bosses, including politicians who may change with election cycles; and it also keeps the legislative branch (the council) separate from the executive (the staff), which in theory would keep day-to-day city operations relatively freer of politicians’ interference.
The anonymous complaint suggested Bacon’s alleged advocacy of Cummins’ plan and Bacon making requests of Menser about Cummins’ job represented two examples of some council members’ alleged interference with the city’s day-to-day executive operations.
The complaint focused on what it called “clear overreach of the current Mayor (only made possible by complicit acceptance and support by Council members [Dana] Watson and [Jessy] Gregg) in what is tantamount to illegally ignoring the Charter and influencing the day-today [sic] operations of the City.”
Former City Manager George Lahanas expressed concern about the issue of alleged council members’ overreach. ELi obtained, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, an email Lahanas wrote to Council on Jan. 2, 2023, shortly before he separated from the city, with the subject line, “City Charter Issue.”
Lahanas told Council in that email, “I want to express a significant concern that has occurred a number of times over the prior several months where I have objected to City Council members becoming directly involved in personnel management. As I have stated, such involvement violates the City Charter, which prohibits Council or its members from directing or interfering with my management of City staff.”
Lahanas didn’t name instances of alleged overreach in that email.
The city has been hit by a huge wave of resignations, which sources beyond the complaint tie to alleged organizational disarray.
Departures this calendar year have included City Clerk Jennifer Shuster; Deputy City Clerk Kathryn Gardner; Planning, Building & Development Director Tom Fehrenbach; Interim Director of Planning Peter Menser; Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann; Interim Human Resources Director Ben Dawson; Assistant Parks & Rec Director Wendy Wilmers Longpre; Prime Time Seniors Program Director Kelly Ardnt; Deputy Police Chief Chad Connelly; Mikell Frey, head of the Communications unit; and Acting Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson.
Many lower-level employees like Cummins have also left in recent months – although, as noted above, Cummins generally challenges the complaint and says he quit because of “a difficult work environment.” ELi has reported that, in exit interviews, other lower-level employees named a variety of reasons for leaving. (FOIA requests have turned up no exit interviews with directors and assistant directors.)
Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro has said East Lansing’s government is hardly unique in seeing the effects of what’s been called “The Great Resignation.” But East Lansing does appear to be harder hit than other local governments.
Three former department heads have told ELi on the condition of anonymity (for fear of retribution) the problem has been a collapse of the normal leadership and organizational systems. They said they no longer could figure out who was really in charge or who was making which decisions.
So, while Cummins’ draft plan does not appear to have been advanced, it apparently did contribute to the internal sense of organizational disarray.
The eight-page draft plan also rattled the Downtown Development Authority last week, as ELi reported. DDA members tell ELi (and several suggested in their meeting last week) that it wasn’t so much the content of the plan that concerned them, it was the ongoing perception there are unclear lines of command and communication in City Hall, problems being compounded by the wave of resignations.
In last week’s meeting, DDA members repeatedly referred to the loss of staff, including Cummins, as a major point of concern. Staff loss and workforce instability was named by several DDA members as one reason the DDA should move to hire their own director.
Meanwhile, although no one has stepped forward to take credit for the anonymous complaint, ELi has heard from three reliable sources that, while it implied it had a singular author, the complaint was actually the product of three or possibly four former high-level employees.
On April 25, City Council voted unanimously to issue a joint statement on the complaint and also to hire an independent attorney to investigate the complaint.
The joint statement said, “To ensure the review is not influenced or hindered in any way, we will not offer further public comment before the review is completed and evaluated.”
Immediately after voting through the statement saying they would be silent on the matter, Mayor Ron Bacon took a “point of privilege” at the meeting to speak for several minutes on it. In his remarks, he denounced the complaint as motivated by racism.
Talifarro concurred with Bacon’s read of the situation, noting the complaint targeted three Black people – Bacon, Talifarro and Elaine Hardy. Bacon is the first Black mayor of East Lansing, Talifarro the first Black city manager, and Hardy the first DEI director for East Lansing.