Downtown Development Authority Moves to Hire Independent Counsel

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Photo by Andrew Graham for ELi

City Attorney Tom Yeadon at the May 23, 2019 meeting of the DDA. Until now, Yeadon has served as both the City's and the DDA's attorney.

East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority decided today to plan a special meeting for next Thursday to discuss a Request For Proposals (RFP) to hire its own lawyer, at least for big redevelopment deals like the one that may be coming on the DDA’s Evergreen Properties.

Until now, the DDA has relied on City Attorney Tom Yeadon.

DDA Vice Chair Jim Croom brought up the idea toward the end of today’s midday meeting, during the period set aside for DDA member concerns.

Croom, who is an attorney, has previously advocated for the idea. He said today it’s important to move on the issue because the committee working on a deal for the Evergreen Properties is expected to meet next week.

Croom spoke to the value of hiring independent counsel with what could be another $100 million deal like Center City or the Park District. He wants an attorney versed in large public-private redevelopment deals.

“It is prudent” to hire specialist counsel, Croom said during the meeting. “It’d almost be reckless not to.”

Croom noted that developers always come with expert counsel on the subject matter at hand, and suggested he wants the DDA to be equally represented. 

He noted that the DDA is often given massive development agreements to vote on just hours before a meeting. In such circumstances, Croom has often pointed out deficiencies in the agreements approved by Yeadon.

Raymond Holt for ELi

DDA Vice Chair Jim Croom (center) and Chair Peter Dewan (right) at the Oct. 24, 2019, meeting of the DDA. (Photo by Raymond Holt for ELi.)

DDA Chair Peter Dewan suggested independent counsel could “run parallel” with the counsel of Yeadon and others during meetings and negotiations to come, providing a kind of double coverage for the public interest. (These big private-public deals typically come with three partners: the City, the DDA, and the developer.)

Board member Greg Ballein, co-developer of the Center City deal, today strongly supported the idea of hiring independent counsel. Ballein broached this issue at a DDA meeting in October 2019, arguing the interest of the DDA is different from that of City Council, which has as its attorney City Attorney Tom Yeadon.

Ballein indicated today he’d like independent counsel for all DDA work, not just big redevelopment deals.

After Croom introduced the subject, Chair Peter Dewan opened up the discussion and several board members, including Luke Hackney and Jill Rhode, quickly voiced their support for the motion. Like Croom, they wanted fast action.

Some members wanted to simply vote today to have staff write a Request for Proposals (RFP) in conjunction with Croom and Dewan, to get the RFP out the door within a couple of days.

DDA members Jill Rhode, Greg Ballein, and City Manager George Lahanas at the Oct. 24, 2019, meeting of the DDA. (Photo by Raymond Holt for ELi.)

But City Manager George Lahanas slowed down the motion, indicating that because the item wasn’t on the agenda prior to the meeting, held virtually because of the pandemic, he believed such a vote could not occur today.

Lahanas – who serves on the DDA by virtue of his office – indicated the DDA needed to schedule a meeting with this noticed on the agenda.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, standing in for Mayor Ruth Beier, repeatedly told the DDA that getting such a meeting done required very little in the way of public notice – only 18 hours. Stephens was suggesting that a short special meeting could be very soon, with the DDA voting to have staff produce an RFP.

“Having a special meeting of the DDA is not an onerous thing,” Stephens said several times.

Responding to Lahanas’ insistence that a vote happen at a separate meeting and Stephens’ point about public notice, board members wanted to try and hold the meeting on Monday, as soon as legally feasible.

But Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach then advised that City staff would likely need more time to prepare, especially if the DDA wanted a draft RFP to consider.

“That’s the intent,” Dewan said. “To have this discussion and have a proposed RFP to evaluate and then make changes to it and either release or not release.”

Croom pointed out that there are already DDA committee meetings scheduled for next Thursday, which meant a quorum could likely be achieved on Thursday.

So, it appears the DDA will meet next Thursday to take a vote to push out an RFP for independent counsel, and it appears a majority of the DDA support the move.

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