City Council Votes 4-1 to Give Foster Swift the City Attorney Contract

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The Foster Swift team interviewing with City Council on Sept. 3, 2020.

East Lansing’s City Council took another key step in replacing City Attorney Tom Yeadon and the McGinty Law Firm on Thursday night, voting 4-1 in favor of negotiating a new general legal services contract with the Foster Swift law firm. 

Yeadon’s contract is set to end October 1, putting time pressure on Council to enter into a new contract. Thursday night’s decision came at the end of a nearly five-hour meeting that featured interviews with representatives of the four finalist firms: Foster Swift, Clark Hill, Rosati Schultz, and George Brookover.

Council member Jessy Gregg cast the lone no vote on negotiating with Foster Swift, supporting instead Clark Hill. 

Mayor Aaron Stephens made the motion to offer the contract to Foster Swift, and Council member Ron Bacon added an amendment to limit the contract to one year and to cap the total cost at $500,000 for the year.

The amendment was designed to address a concern among several members of Council about what being represented by Foster Swift might really cost. Several firms included a cost cap in their own proposals, but Foster Swift did not.

Their proposal did include a table of hourly rates, and stated, “Foster Swift will work hard to meet the City of East Lansing’s budgetary needs.” Their proposal continued, “Our goal is to understand the scope of work and financial parameters of your projects. Hence, we look forward to having a candid discussion regarding a mutually beneficial legal fee structure.”

Bacon had lauded Foster Swift as his favorite firm, but he was concerned that the costs weren’t outlined more clearly or capped.

“That stuck in my craw,” Bacon said of the lack of a more clearly outlined cost structure. 

But with the proposed cost cap and Stephens reminding everyone that Thursday’s vote was to begin negotiations, Bacon indicated that he was comfortable proceeding. Bacon called the Foster Swift presentation “cohesive” and “like watching a really good team.”

“They all seem really talented,” Bacon said of Foster Swift’s presenters. 

Council members Lisa Babcock and Dana Watson also voted in favor of the motion to enter into negotiations with Foster Swift for a one-year capped contract.

Bacon, Stephens, and Watson expressed enthusiasm about several of Foster Swift’s attributes. All three lauded the virtues of having the deep-bench expertise a larger firm provides. 

“Their areas of expertise are great,” Stephens said.

Watson spoke positively of the specificity Foster Swift provided on coverage of library law, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Open Meetings Act. She also liked the way Foster Swift approached the relationship of the City Council and its legal representation.

Bacon, Stephens, and Watson especially praised the dedication to diversity and inclusion Foster Swift demonstrated and discussed. 

Council members were also happy with the concept of having Robert Easterly of Foster Swift work on prosecution for the City.

Despite ultimately voting in favor of negotiating with Foster Swift, Babcock said she was put off by their “sales pitch” approach.

“Too much like buying car insurance,” Babcock said.

She had preferred the presentations of George Brookover, a local attorney, and the Clark Hill firm. But Babcock did say several times she felt all four finalists were quality firms capable of representing the City and meeting its needs. 

Gregg, like Babcock, strongly preferred Clark Hill. She provided several reasons throughout the discussion, including the fact that their proposal came with a cost cap.

Gregg also specifically praised Clark Hill’s Nancy Mullett, who presented along with several other lawyers from the firm. Mullett repeatedly suggested that the right way to approach conflicts was to understand the human on the other side of the issue and to find solutions. She suggested that sometimes – as in the case of blighted residential properties – it might make sense to engage assistance from mental health experts.

By contrast, Foster Swift presented an approach that was more conventionally focused on legal tools, including threats of punishment and litigation.

But despite Gregg and Babcock’s stated preference for Clark Hill, it was Foster Swift that won out and will likely be representing the City of East Lansing as its City Attorney in the next year, starting approximately October 1.

Now, City Manager George Lahanas will work with the City’s labor counsel from the Keller Thoma Law Firm to develop a contract under the parameters set by Council. It remains to be seen what will be included in the $500,000 cap and whether Foster Swift will accept the contract as offered.

The expectation is that Council will have a contract to review and possibly approve at the Sept. 15 meeting.

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